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November 03, 2005  |  Time off  |  11234 hit(s)

In the wake of finishing a multi-year project, our beneficent employer gave us some days off last week. A really lo-o-o-ong weekend! What should I do? Should I lie on the couch and read? Should I go away for the weekend? My mind reeled with possibilities. So much so, in fact, that I became confused and anxious. In the end, therefore, I went with that old stand-by for time off work: home improvement.

This time it was the laundry room. When I moved in, the floor was covered with these sort of vinyl-y tiles. But soon enough they cracked and pieces of them came loose, exposing the bare concrete floor underneath, along with a layer of black mastic. Ugly. Plus the room smelled like cat pee, having been one stop among many for a now ex-cat whose senility confused her about where the catbox was.

The job was straightforward enough on paper. Remove washer and dryer, remove laundry sink, remove water heater. That last gave me pause, but I suppressed my doubts. Once the room had been depopulated of appliances, I needed to take up what remained of the tiles. Then I had to scrape or otherwise remove the old mastic. Then put down new vinyl floor. Then reassemble.

I knew that I would be without hot water for the duration, which, er, incentivized me -- once started, I had to get the job done. I figured a long weekend would do it.

Which it did, but barely. All the usual home-improvement imperatives applied: unexpected difficulties; more ambition than time, talent, or energy; Hofstader's Law[1]; a sudden and debilitating loss of energy (mine, I mean) about 3/4 of the way through; and way, way too many trips to Home Depot. As I say, the usual.

A few notes, then.

Wiring  I needed to disconnect the hot water heater, which (for those who are interested) is wired with two hot wires to make a 220-volt circuit. For a while I could not determine which breaker controlled the water heater, though. I eventually figured out that the two hot wires were connected to two separate breakers. When I noted this to the electrical dude at the (good) hardware store[2], he looked horrified. I guess the issue is if one breaker trips and the other doesn't, there's trouble that starts with T and that rhymes with E, and that stands for call the Electrician. Or maybe the insurance agent. So I put that on the list to fix soonest. After that, draining the water and lugging the empty heater out to the garage was no problem.

Old mastic  I had a notion that I'd scrape up the old dried mastic with a sharp scraper kind of thing. Hardly. What I needed was a substance closely akin to paint remover[3]. I would brush this on, wait 15 minutes, and then use a putty knife to scrape the resulting black jelly off. As I learned very quickly, that remover stuff is eye-wateringly foul. According to the label, it contains chemicals "known by the State of California to cause cancer." And known by me to cause pounding headaches. "Use outdoors if possible," it says on the label. Sorry, I can't haul my laundry room floor outside. It took three passes in all to get the old stuff off the floor. To give you an idea of just how foul it is, when I was done I rinsed down the whole floor with paint thinner, and that was a great improvement. A rather thin silver lining is that this treatment definitively got rid of the cat pee smell. So there's a little tip for you.

Flooring  I got new vinyl flooring at the remnants place. I sprung for some good Armstrong stuff; what sold me is that they guarantee against tearing, which seemed good for a floor I'd be dragging the wash machine across. Even at the remnants place the price made my eyes go wide. But I figured what the hell -- I sure didn't want to be doing this job again any time soon. While some minion was cutting the vinyl off the roll for me, I chatted with the sales guy about my old floor. "12-inch tiles or 9-inch tiles?" he asked. 9-inch, I told him. "Probably asbestos," was his guess. Oh great.

Too many jobs  The temptation of having the laundry room conveniently empty was too great to resist, and I added more jobs to the queue. I patched a hole in the wallboard, which is a multi-day job (apply, sand, reapply, sand, reapply, …). I also thought that with the water heater out of the room, I should quick-like paint behind it. And I figured I'd re-install the water heater to code, which meant raising it off the floor and strapping it. In other words, rather than doing one job -- replacing the floor -- I was suddenly doing about four. Guess how many of those got completely done.

Tools and materials  I do a fair bit of home stuff, and over the years I've accumulated a batch of tools and a garage full of leftover supplies. You'd think, therefore, that I would have a can of wallboard primer around somewhere. Nope. Vinyl-floor glue. Nope. Or maybe not "nope," but "not that I can find, dammit." The latter applied also to various tools -- for example, I have a stud sensor that I used not long ago, but which is now mysteriously nowhere to be found. So I got a new one. If you're a pro, you can amortize the cost of your tools and materials over your various job. If you're an amateur, you don't use your tools or leftovers enough and end up re-buying most of them for each job. That, my friends, adds quite a bit of cost to a job like this, not to mention the annoyance of many trips to the store.

The happy news is that the floor went in pretty smoothly, allowing for the inherent awkwardness of laying out a big sheet of vinyl and then gluing it down by halves. There was one recalcitrant bubble that I convinced to lie down and stay by piling bricks on top of it. Crude but effective.

From that point, it was "a simple matter" of reinstalling the water heater and the other appliances. I assembled the little steel table which was to be the heater's new throne. I even figured out a way to hump the empty heater 12" up and onto the table.[4] Then came another of the unexpected difficulties: the old water tubing wouldn't reach, nor would the old electrical cable. I had known this, but what I didn't know was just how hard it was going to be to find the right replacements. In the end, it proved impossible, actually, or at least, impossible to complete by Sunday. So I took the water heater back off the steel table (oof!) and reinstalled it in its original location. But I did get it all strapped in:

So the floor is done (and nice, too), and the appliances all work. (When I hooked up the washer, I reconnected everything except -- oops! -- the drain pipe. So I had the opportunity to mop my new floor right away.) I have to get the two-breaker problem resolved, and I do still have to raise the water heater, maybe not as high, and I have to finish painting and I have to finish the patch on the wall and I have to come up with some kind of baseboards. So perhaps another long weekend will come along soon, heh.

For all that, it wasn't all just home improvement. Sabrina had three concerts and I did do some socializing and I read some and did in fact get some benefit from having down time. As I was noting over the weekend, this home improvement stuff, it's fun and it's necessary, but it can't be the only thing I ever do with my long weekends. So I won't.

[1] Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you think, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law. — Douglas Hofstadter

[2] McLendon Hardware.

[3] Perhaps you're familiar with the Jasco line of products, all based on noxious chemicals.

[4] Rolling it at a 45-degree angle up a plywood ramp, as it turned out.

S.   03 Nov 05 - 9:37 PM

I'm thinking the photo doesn't do justice to the beauty of the floor...though the back of Lucy-dog's head adds charm.

Eric Lippert   04 Nov 05 - 12:56 PM

Good heavens, you absolutely positively cannot hook up two halves of a 220 volt circuit to two different breakers! You have to get a single double-width breaker. You can get double-width breakers that afford two 220 volt circuits so that you don't have to waste the extra slot.

The issue is not so much that one breaker is going to trip leaving the other one hot -- that would be bad, but if the first breaker tripped because there was too much current, then the second breaker is likely going to suddenly have its load doubled and will trip as well.

No, the danger is that the homeowner or serviceperson is going to attempt to turn off the heater at the box for servicing and not realize that it is a 220 volt circuit, and end up electrocuting themselves.

You can fix this yourself. Get yourself a double-width breaker of the appropriate amperage, turn off all the power to the house, find the two existing breakers and remove them, and install the new double-width breaker. Remember while you're doing this that the wires coming into the box from the street are still hot with 200 amps, even if the panel isn't, so don't touch them.

While you're at it, double-check that whatever bozo did this to you didn't do the same thing to the other 220 volt circuits, like your stove. And this would also be a good opportunity to identify every breaker in the box and clearly label it.

mike   04 Nov 05 - 1:20 PM

As I say, I did figure out the two-circuit issue and of course turned both off. The guy at McLendon said he didn't happen to have the appropriate replacement breaker in stock (which started him on a long rant about how anything manufactured with plastic is all of a sudden expensive and in short supply). I'll replace the breaker soon enough; I've certainly spent enough time inside that box, good heavens. (It's been that way for years and years, another few days are unlikely to kill me. Literally, haha.) I must say, my eletrical life got infinitely easier when I got an induction AC sensor.

Good point about the other 220s. Fortunately (I guess), the only other active one I have is the stove, since I have a gas dryer. And that one might be ok, or so I think from my imperfect memory of the layout in the box.

The new circuits are identified -- the ones added for the house addition a few years back. The rest, well, it will take a big label to cover the lengthy and circuitous (haha) path controlled by any single breaker. Ah, the joys of old houses.