Added Another Smart Switch

We’re on a roll now. I drove out to Best Buy and picked up another WeMo smart light switch. Since I knew what I was doing it only took me twenty minutes to install, with no drama whatsoever (*knock on wood).

The garage light previously could only be operated from within the garage which made is useless because to turn it off you’d have to leave the house which would subject you to the elements and / or machete wielding maniacs hiding in the bushes. Now the light can be operated from anywhere in the world, day or night.

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Cut The Cable?

Our cable company, Spectrum, recently notified us that going forward we need to get a special digital box for any televisions that simply connect to the cable outlet instead of through a DVR or cable box. Basically the cable signal needs to travel through something like a DVR or receiver to make it all digital or unscrambled or whatever before it reaches your TV. I don’t know why watching television has to be so complicated but it’s not surprising that once again I need to do something that involves another device just to watch cooking shows on TV. And of course that device will eventually require a monthly fee after a free year. Well, whatever. Our family has five televisions total and we regularly only watch one of them, the TV in the family room. Soon though I’m going to get new televisions in the family room and basement, as both of those TV’s are over ten years old. So I could use this digital box thing in the basement I suppose or maybe in my studio.

The allure of a free digital box had me driving to my local Spectrum store to pick one up and get some questions answered on a Saturday afternoon.

Recently Spectrum jacked up our monthly bill to $190 a month for cable, internet and home phone. I not only wanted to find out more about this digital box, I wanted to discuss ways to save money on my cable bill.

DVR vs. Digital Box vs. Cable Card vs….

I’ll preface this with what my plan is. I’m going to take the family room television and move it downstairs. The HDMI port is broken on it and it causes the TV to flicker. I asked a guy at Best Buy a while back and he said that if a TV is over five years old no one really fixes them anymore and they don’t make parts for them.

I will put a brand new 49″ Sony 850E unit in the family room. Eventually the basement will get a new 65″ Sony 900E TV.

So, my current ten year old Sony TV in the family room (the “broken” one) has a slot in the back for a cable card. Which got me thinking instead of a digital box couldn’t I simply get a cable card and pop it in the back? Then I wouldn’t need the new digital box in the basement. I asked the guy at Spectrum and yes theoretically that sounds right but they don’t carry cable cards in store. I would have to call their 800-number and see if I could get a cable card. Weird, but whatever. I confirmed at Best Buy later in the day that the new Sony’s have a cable card slot. So if I can get my hands on cable cards I won’t need to rent the digital box for $12 a month next year.

This is where is starts to get really weird. The Spectrum guy said if I get a Roku for my television, I won’t need the digital box or cable card, I will be able to stream my cable from the Spectrum app. Ugh, what the heck is a Roku and what does it do do for me? I’d find out later in the day at Best Buy. Basically it’s a device that I would buy for $50-$75 dollars and I would avoid the digital box rental fee. Roku also allows me to access various streaming television apps, but get this, both Sony televisions I’m looking to buy are “smart” TV’s which have all the popular apps built in. So the only reason, for me, to get Roku is to access Spectrum without a cable card, DVR or box. Ok, I’ll consider it.

Streaming TV Content

This leads me to the “wild west” of accessing television content that we are living in in right now. It’s not like the old days where you plugged in cable and watched what they gave you to watch. With antennae, cable, and smart TV apps I need a spreadsheet, or a few websites, to keep track of where to watch what I want to watch.

Wouldn’t you know it, as I’m writing this (over the course of what was a couple days, and now a couple weeks) some interesting things have come to my attention. Here I was learning about Roku, lo and behold my parents of all people had already implemented my “Roku in place of cable box” plan with the help of my brother. I took the family over to my parents house for dinner and they had a Roku remote next to the TV. They explained it all to me and I got to check it out first hand. With that knowledge I went ahead and ordered a Roku Streaming Stick + from Amazon (on sale during cyber week). The stick can be easily switched from TV to TV in our household and should cover us as we rarely have more than one or two TV’s on at any given time.

New Family Room Television

One other thing transpired while I have been lazily writing this post: we got a new television for the family room! Once again taking advantage of holiday sales season, I went to Best Buy and bought a 55″ Sony 900E. I originally wanted a 49″ but my wife and the guy at Best Buy convinced me 55″ was the size to get based on the size of our room. Apparently the latest train of thought is you can get a larger television and not have it feel overwhelming. As for the model, I was the guy who decided to get the 900 series instead of the 800 series. My logic being that I hope to hold on to this TV for 10+ years, and the 900 does everything extremely well. The extra $200 would be a distant memory 5-10 years from now.

The Sony is a smart TV so it has a ton of apps built in including Netflix and Amazon, so I no longer have to go through the Xbox to access those. The TV also has apps like SlingTV, Hallmark and others so if I want to cut the cable I don’t need to fuss with even a Roku for that set. The 900E was relatively easy to set up. It has voice control so I can say “Hey Google, turn on Captain America” and the TV will show me when that movie plays next or may even turn it on for me if it’s available to stream.

I love the look of the set, and the picture is fantastic. There was some disturbing “soap opera” effect while watching 4K content on Netflix but with some setting adjustments I was able to get the picture looking for warm and personal versus jittery and too “good”. I love how the set is connected to my streaming apps and the internet. I love how it is basically a free Google personal assistant. The only thing we’re thinking of upgrading is the sound by virtue of getting a sound bar at a later date. DVD movies and video games look great on the set too, by the way.

One other note, I got three new HDMI cables to hook my DVD player, Xbox 360 and cable box up. The kids at Best Buy convinced me I needed 4K cables, which is fine. The problem is I found the same certified cables, in the 6′ size I wanted for $12 at Walmart instead of $25 at Best Buy. Point is, don’t buy your HDMI cables at Best Buy. You only need spend $9-$12 on HDMI 4K cables.

What’s Next?

I’m so excited we got a new TV and my Roku should be here soon. I think we are set (pun intended) for the foreseeable future. I got a new modem (Netgear C700 on sale) so that will take $10 off my cable bill. We are going to experiment with the various apps. I really think my goal will be to cut the cable and just pay for internet, and any specialty apps like the Hallmark one for instance. With our busy schedule we’re not even DVRing shows that much because we know we can find them on demand.

Anyway, I hope my miscellaneous ramblings have helped those of you who may have been as lost as I was.

Do you have any pros and cons that you’ve experienced in regards to cable, streaming, etc? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

I thought 55” would be too big but it doesn’t look to big in our family room

For now we decided to mount the TV on its stand. We may wall mount it at a later date but honestly we don’t want the TV to be to high off the ground. We like it at sitting eye level.

These HDMI cords were just $12 at Walmart and perform the same as the ones you get at Best Buy for 2-3 times the cost.

Cats enjoying Happy Yule Log on the new TV

The cats enjoying Happy Yule Log on the new TV

Garage Door Opener Bulb

Okay, so this probably isn’t my most exciting written piece, but I’m kinda jazzed I got light bulbs for my garage door openers. We were placing an order on Amazon and I noticed they now offer these great Genie brand garage door opener LED bulbs. I had worked on a project designing several displays for these bulbs and my interest was piqued.

The reason you need a special bulb for your garage door opener is one, they need to be vibration resistant for obvious reasons. And secondly the garage door opener can cause interference with regular LED bulb electronics.

These gems were about $10 apiece and are a 10w bulb (60w equivalent). So they’re not the most efficient bulb but then again how often are the going to be on. They put out an amazing 800 lumens each. They are 3000K, so fairly warm for a garage, and will last 22+ years. The bulbs are also rated for cold weather (it’s 60 degrees in January today so maybe that’s not as much a concern anymore in Ohio), and damp locations, so no worries with their garage environment performance. I believe the bulbs are also smaller than a typical light bulb; I think they are considered A19.

 

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Update on my upstairs hall LED’s: one of the bulbs flickered and went out. I think I need to remove the CFL ballast and direct wire the bulbs. I call the store I bought them from and they referred me to MaxLite. I left a message at MaxLite but haven’t heard from them yet. I may just try and do it myself and use the bulbs I have as opposed to sending them back. I’ll keep you posted (yes, I know, it’s all so thrilling).

Garage Door Openers

After four years, we finally pulled the trigger on buying garage door openers for our two garage doors. With our fifth winter looming and a “twelve month same as cash” deal at Lowe’s now was as good of time as any.

At our old house we had a Genie garage door opener installed shortly after we moved in. This time around I researched openers a bit and decided to switch brands and go with Chamberlain because they got better customer review ratings from the various sites I looked at online. We purchased two 1/2 horsepower belt driven Chamberlain Whisper Drive openers at about $168 apiece. Since our garage doors are 8′ tall, not the normal 7′ tall, I had to buy two extension kits as well as some hardware, and L-shaped steel material to create a hanger for each opener, about $164 in extra materials. Also turns out I had to spend around another $20 for longer power cords, but we’ll get to that later.

Lowe’s offers installation starting at $119 per opener plus any extra for materials, or extra labor. After talking to the guy at Lowe’s I decided I could probably handle it and save some money. That’s kind of a funny thought in hindsight but first, the installation…

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Metal L-channel for hanging the openers from the ceiling.

What I thought was going to take a couple hours per door quickly turned into a three day ordeal over the course of the last month. Every little thing that could go wrong sort of did go wrong; although catastrophic deal breakers were limited and obviously I did get the job done. Eventually.

The biggest challenge I faced was that our garage is 14′ tall inside. Which means I only had one ladder tall enough to even get close to the ceiling. It was a precarious job often spent with me on a tall ladder envisioning, not my death, but rather my breaking my neck, peeing myself and laying hopelessly on the cold hard cement until hours later when my wife comes out to see if I’m “okay”.

I managed to get the first opener assembled. I mounted a board to the header above the door to attach the track to. That was it for day one.

first-opener-halfway-done

Late in the night of day one, I finally have the track attached to the front header. I had to scrounge wood, and then attach the board to a seemingly stud free wall. All in an attempt to get the height just right.

The next day I propped the opener up on the ladder and realized no way could I prop the opener on there and still be able to access the ceiling to install the L-shaped metal channels that create the hanger assembly. So I spent an hour fabricating a wooden stand, about ten feet tall to rest the opener on while I attempted to mount it. Here are some pictures to behold my craftiness.

Okay, with the opener finally resting level, it was time to install the metal hanger assembly. This took awhile because I kept dropping hardware; up and down I went on that ladder about a million times. I could just barely reach the 14′ tall ceiling to find ceiling joists and mark them without falling over. One way or another I got the hangers installed, including one at an angle to keep things from racking.

Next up was wiring the unit and plugging it in.

The only problem there was the electricians who installed the garage wiring totally screwed me. The outlet was too far away from the opener. So I’d either have to get the outlets moved, or, after some thought, put longer cords on the openers. Turns out I went the longer cord route. But in addition to that they didn’t run the low voltage wires long enough to reach where the openers needed to be mounted. They basically installed everything for a standard 7′ tall door, without actually accessing our garage’s real world situation. So there I was four years later cursing up a storm to empty air.

So I adjusted the ladder and clambered on up into the attic hoping I wouldn’t have to run new low voltage wires or have to splice anything. Turns out what I did was undo the staples that held the low voltage wires in neat ninety degree runs from the walls to their holes in the ceiling. This allowed enough slack in the lines that they would then reach the garage door openers. So while it may not look pretty in the attic, and I don’t know if that breaks some code, I truly do not care because the problem was solved and I didn’t have to splice or re-run wires.

I am, by no means, an electrician but eventually I was able to figure out how to wire the wall switch as well as the electronic eyes that prevent the unit from closing if something like a kid or small animal is in their way. I plugged the first opener into an extension cord and sure as shit it worked. I was as shocked as anyone.

End of day two.

Only one opener to go.

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The first wall button installed.

I took a few weeks off to mentally prepare for installing the second opener. In the meantime I went to Lowe’s and bought two 8′ long appliance cords. I asked the guy if I could simply change out the cords on the openers instead of fussing with moving outlets. He was a older gentleman, and I just loved his response of “Let’s not overthink every damn thing. Just change out the cords.” So that was good enough for me. The cords I got had three wires to match the three wires on the units – green ground, and white and black.

After assembling the second unit I started to mount it, but then realized quickly that it’d be easier to change the cord on the ground.

What a royal pain in the ass.

Once again I was soon bitching out my electrician for putting the outlets in the wrong spot as I worked over my perfectly new garage door opener; taking it apart, having it flop around in my hands. By the way, the cover is held on with eight screws that can only be removed with a 1/4″ wrench because they are so tightly secured. Eventually I got the cover all thinking: “There’s no way this is 1) ever going back together, and 2) ever going to work again. $168 dollars down the drain.

I spent a good fifteen minutes trying to free the cord from the unit. An injection molded grommet had a death grip on everything. With a little flat head screwdriver love I got the grommet out.  The wires on the original cord were nice because they had little loops and prongs for easily connecting them. My generic new cord just had wires, but I did the best I could to attach them. I even got the grommet to go back in, using a big pair of pliers to squeeze it tight as can be on the power cord, allowing it to re-enter its hole. Eventually the cover even went back on and everything looked okay.

Don’t forget, I still have to install the new cord on the first opener, except that one is ten feet in the air. Not looking forward to that.

Once the power cord was installed, the rest of the installation went relatively easily. Having installed the opener once already, the second install was infinitely easier. Plus I had prepped a lot of the wiring ahead of time when I did opener number one.

Does it feel good to have garage door openers?

Yes.

Was it worth it?

Monetarily? No. If I worked billable hours for half the time I spent playing with the installation I would be way ahead.

Mentally? Not at the time because it was a headache I didn’t need.

But now that it’s over it was rewarding to finish the job. And now I know how to install garage door openers. Still I’m not that quick but I do know the ins and outs of them and how they are installed. So that’s a worthless skill I can add to my heap of worthless knowledge.

I will get the satisfaction of knowing I did it all by myself whenever I go in and out of the garage. So I’m ultimately happy. And now after four years we finally don’t have to manually open our garage doors which will be great in the winter time. Now I just need to clean out the garage.

-Chris

 

Basement Progress

We started tiling the basement floor. And today the electrician started to finish up the electrical work. All of the switches and outlets are installed in the main room and bathroom. As well as a couple of light fixtures and a bathroom fan.

It’s impossible to take good photos of lights with my phone, but you can generally see what they look like in today’s photos.

The tile is going to take a long time install. This is most of a day's worth of labor.

The tile is going to take a long time install. This is most of a day’s worth of labor.

The bathroom light we bought at Home Depot.

The bathroom light we bought at Home Depot.

The caged wall sconce we bought from Restoration Hardware.

The caged wall sconce we bought from Restoration Hardware.

Finished Basement Update – Electrical

I wanted to share with you some pictures from our basement finishing project. After sitting idle for several months, work has picked up again on the basement. We’re in no rush to get it done, but it would be nice to have it ready by later 2015, fall or early winter.

After completing, and getting approval for the rough framing that yours truly completed, it was time to get the electrician in. I can not do electrical work. It scares me, and as prone as I am to making mistakes, I’d likely burn the house down and kill myself.

The electrical will be completed in two phases. Right now is phase one, the rough-in. After this is approved by the building department, then we’ll cover everything up with drywall, and then the electrician can do his final electrical work.

The install should take three working days total for one electrician. All seems to be going well. Basically a bunch of electrical boxes and yellow wires everywhere.

The Superior Wall System we used for our foundation makes wiring outside walls a breeze. There are little holes for wires to pass through on every cement stud of the foundation. Electrical boxes mount easily to the metal studs of the foundation, and my partition walls, with self tapping screws. Note, if you have Superior Walls, have your contractor check out their website. There is a lot of info on there for contractors regarding how to work with the wall system.

Superior Walls make life easier for insulators, electricians and even plumbers by virtue of their thoughtful, feature filled design. Any house I ever build will utilize this wall system for the foundation, if possible.

I went over the switch and lighting layout with our electrical contractor. I think the wife and I have it all figured out…designed…as best we can tell, in terms of where we want lights and how we want everything to be switched on and off. I’m having the electrician put in a CAT5? cable into what will be my “office” space. Not sure in this day of wireless communication how important this is, but I guess better to have it than not.

There is pretty good access, even after the drywall is up, to many of the walls and all the rooms, especially because of the drop ceiling that we plan on installing. So I’m not to worried if we screw something up and have to “fix” it later.

Electrical should be done this week. Then we can order drywall and start that phase.

Wires simply pass through the remade holes in the Superior Wall studs of our foundation.

Wires simply pass through the remade holes in the Superior Wall studs of our foundation.

Electrical boxes simply attach to the metal studs of the Superior Walls of our fondation.

Electrical boxes simply attach to the metal studs of the Superior Walls of our fondation.

A typical plastic grommet bushing (the red thing) in the metal studs. This protects the wires from chaffing or cutting on the sharp metal.

A typical plastic grommet bushing (the red thing) in the metal studs. This protects the wires from chaffing or cutting on the sharp metal.

World Pangolin Day

World Pangolin Day

Today is World Pangolin Day. If you’re not sure what that means, I’ll give you an ultra brief rundown. This is a pangolin:

This is a pangolin. Super cute. Photo courtesy of http://savepangolins.org

This is a pangolin. Super cute. Photo courtesy of http://savepangolins.org

 

According to Wikipedia, a pangolin is a mammal that has large keratin scales covering its skin, and is the only known mammal with this adaptation. It is found naturally in tropical regions throughout Africa and Asia. The name pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “something that rolls up”. It is the most trafficked mammal in the world.

People in Southeast Asia love harvesting these little guys, often illegally, and selling all their bits , often illegally, to people in China primarily, as well as other countries. At the rate their habitat is being destroyed, and they are being killed, the pangolin will be extinct in just a few years. Which means while we’ve been able to enjoy their existence and the cool diversity they bring to our world, our kid’s world will be distinctly lacking in diversity cause they won’t have pangolins. Personally I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have cool animals, such as the pangolin, in it.

So to raise awareness we celebrate World Pangolin Day today!

Click here for 7 ways to celebrate World Pangolin Day today, and every day really.

And you can use these cool hashtags to raise awareness:

Please take the time to appreciate these awesome critters, and everything they offer in terms of wonder and diversity to our cool world. Think of ways that you and your family can help save these and other endangered plants and animals.

Basement Fireproof Caulking

When not trying to save the world, I’m trying to improve the comfort and performance of our house. Today I checked off a chore that had been on my list for a while.

Plumbers, electricians and HVAC installers in my opinion are nice guys but generally can be horrific when it comes to “whole system thinking”. What happens is the electrician comes in and runs wires, or the HVAC guy runs ducts. Then another trade comes in and does their thing. Well in doing their thing, they may inexplicably mess up the work of another trade and in the end you have a bunch of little issues that need to be addressed. For example, there is support blocking that was removed when air ducts went in, or random hole attempts in the foundation, or holes in air ducts where wires go through.

Just like the foam I had to replace / supplement last week, today I had to deal with some air flow issues. There is a large air duct that was created between two first floor joists. Fairly common, the HVAC team tacks up some corrugated like silver board to seal up the space between two joists and “Presto!”, instant air duct. The problem is either before or after someone ran electrical wires through the two joists. So the air duct, which works most efficiently when it’s air tight, has a bunch of holes that allow air to escape. By time the air goes from the furnace to the vent upstairs, it’s lost a lot of its “gusto” which makes the furnace work harder. In fact you want to keep wires out of the ducts altogether because they are an unnecessary obstruction to air flow.

To seal up these holes, finally, I used some fire barrier caulk. Because they’re electrical wires, you have to use fire caulk. The grey gooey stuff was easy to work with and came off of my hands easily when it was clean up time. I ended up using my finger to apply it because it was difficult to reach the holes with the caulk gun; too many pipes and wires in the way.

I even caulked up some gaps at the end of the vent for good measure.

Tip: do all this caulking during construction when you have better access, or ask your tradesmen to do it for you.

Basement

Framing is complete in the basement. So now we’re ready for inspections and then electrical. It’s really exciting to see the rooms formed and ready for the next step. I think we have around $750-$1,000 worth of materials into the project so far. My labor is free.

And I noticed my spray foam job did the trick on the exterior penetrations. I got one more can to touch up one little gap, but otherwise we should be pretty air tight in the basement now. Will see if these sealing chores impact our electric bill in the coming year.