Friday, January 22, 2016

The Not So Big House

Recently I've been exploring the idea of building my next house. Ever since I completed a high school vocational training class that built a house, I've thought it was something that I wanted to do some day. And now, with a growing family, sometimes it feels like that "some day" may have arrived.

As a part of my study I've picked up "The Not So Big House" by Sarah Susanka. This is not a really new book (it was originally published in 1998) but in that time it's ideas have gained a great deal of traction. It was early to the sustainable building movement that is now alive and well, particularly in the pacific northwest.

I've come across many ideas in this book that I need to process, hopefully to help me be able to translate them into something I might be able to use. So, as I've said before, this blog is for me, but if you'd like to listen in on my inner monologue, have at. You've been warned.

Quality > Quantity
First off is the concept of quality over quantity. This resonates strongly with me. I value, well, value above all else. I can not bear to spend anything over what is necessary. For me the greatest satisfaction is in finding that sweet balance between cost and utility. This can apply to anything. It can be monetary cost, time spent, effort spent, etc. And utility can come in many forms as well. Is the solution useful, attractive, and functional? I often look to see if just a little extra effort or cost will produce a demonstrably superior result. When that little effort is worthwhile, I can not bear to not make the extra effort or expense. Often, when I'm shopping for something I'll do a good deal of research and determine the minimum quality I'm willing to accept and then wait for a price I can live with. I'd rather do without than live with less-than-ideal. Of course, this is the ideal. Sometimes I am pressed into a corner. It's life. It happens to all of us.

As applied to a house, this makes sense. This is the same idea that you find in those little setups at Ikea. Those help you to see that you might actually be able to live in 500 square feet if it was laid out cleverly.

Not with children, though. You can't live with children in 500 square feet. Can't be done.

Use Space Sparingly
All space in a home should be considered carefully. I've already looked at hundreds of stock floorplans and it is very apparent that they are not all created equal. I've seen a particular plan that is over 2400 square feet, and yet has only three bedrooms. Each room has it's own bathroom and expansive closet. The master closet is slightly small than my current master bedroom. At first I liked this plan, but after I looked at it for a while (and before this reading) I decided I would not be satisfied with it. There is an almost identical four bedroom plan, and even with four bedrooms, it was....gluttonous.

That sent me back looking carefully at my own home. I like what I have. Part of that is because I don't feel like there's a lot of extra stuff. Again, this comes down to that balance between cost and utility. I see space as a cost, since you have to spend to get it, and utility is how well that space fits your life. I like my house, but there are a few shortcomings. I won't go into them here, but I feel like they could be addressed by only adding a few hundred square feet to what I already have.

Formal Rooms
Formal rooms are a holdover from a past that no longer exists. Most people today will tell you they hardly ever use their formal dining room or living room. Sure Thanksgiving is there (if you're not at grandpa's house), and sometimes friends come over. But how many friends of yours sit in the formal living room? This idea was kind of a big deal in 1998, but now many homes are built with large great rooms that include the kitchen space. For me this is ideal. When you're family comes over you all end up in the kitchen anyway. This also reflects how most people live today. The family spends time together in the family room (or great room) and having the kitchen as a part of or appendage to that space is only natural.

Visual Connection
If you can see another area in the home, you feel connected to it, while at the same time long interior views make the home feel larger. One manifestation of this is the concept of the away room. This is an area that is acoustically isolated from the great room, while still being close enough to feel nearby and connected. Often it is separated from the great room by french doors with glass. This allows it to be visually connected, and still enjoy some separation.

Up until I read this, I was using the word "library" to express what I thought I needed. I wanted space for study, reading, & music that could be nearby but separated from the confusion of the great room. One of the things my current house lacks is space for books. Recently there has been some writings about how the necessity of a home library is greater than ever, and deliberately creating a space of good old-fashioned paper learning is critical, even given easy access to electronic information. I fully subscribe to this. I love Google Maps, but I miss pulling out that gigantic world atlas and leaning over it on the table.

The idea of connecting this space visually to the rest of the house was new to me, but it fits perfectly.

Ceiling Heights
Ceiling heights can dramatically impact the way a space feels. This turns out to be in relation to the dimensions of the room: larger rooms can tolerate having higher ceilings. I had never thought of this, but again, it fits perfectly. The ceiling should be lower in spaces that should be cozier. Think of places like that away room, the bedroom, or a window seat. If the volume of a space is smaller, it can actually feel more sheltered. Think about how children like to play in little nooks that are scaled to their size. Adults have that same involuntary draw toward safety, but we're better at denying it in favor of what we think we want.

This is manifest in many vacation homes. It's not unusual to see vacation homes with low ceilings in some areas, such as the dining nook, or the bathrooms. People feel cozy in these places and that's they are good retreats. More often though, applying this same kind of informality to a primary residence might make the home feel much more comfortable.

This may have broken me of the desire to build my house with nine or ten foot ceilings throughout. I would likely still put higher ceilings in the entry and great room, but I would probably bring down the ceiling in the bedrooms, the kitchen, and the away room.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
From the book: "To be surrounded by an environment that is both beautiful and personally enriching has far more appeal than the futile attempt to "keep up with the Joneses". When we have what the Joneses have, we experience firsthand the inadequacy of the dream. It's so easy for me to want something that someone else wants. It's a normal human impulse, and like most human impulses, it has to be deliberately curtailed.

The Not So Big House accepts the fact that "not so big" is very different depending on who is saying it. They have examples ranging from 800 square feet up to a few thousand. The idea is to put more thought into it rather than just throwing more square footage into the mix.

For me, having an architect-designed house would be be way too expensive to satisfy my cost/utility balance. I am glad I read this, though. It will help me to know better what to look for in existing floorplans as well as know how I can make small tweaks here and there to bring out some features that will make the home more satisfying to live in.

"Do not keep anything in your home
that you do not know be useful or
believe to be beautiful"
--William Morris

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Air Conditioning

Let me begin this post by saying that it is for me. It's going to be painfully detailed and of import to nobody but me. You will be bored by technical details of something that doesn't really matter. I suggest you read no further.

On the other hand, if you can't resist an odyssey, then by all means, read on.

The purpose of this post is to chronicle the saga of the air conditioning system in my Land Cruiser. Over the last two years I've been putting money into the system a little at a time. At each step I thought that there was just some little thing to do to get the system back online. Each time I enjoyed AC for a short time, only to have another part of the system fail. So let's get started.

First some basics. Here is a diagram of my AC system. The major components are the compressor, condenser, drier, expansion valve, and evaporator. They are labeled on the diagram. The evaporator and expansion valve are behind the dashboard, everything else is in the engine bay. The refrigerant flows from the compressor to the condenser, through the drier, next the expansion valve, finally the evaporator, and back to the compressor.

Starting in the summer of 2013 I found that the AC wasn't making the air cold. At this point I didn't know jack about automotive AC, so I started the process of troubleshooting and figuring out what I needed to do. Soon I decided I needed to get this thing sorted out because I had to go to Utah in October 2013 to see my family and get some machinery.

The first step was to get it into a shop for some diagnostic. This is done by charging the system with a dye which shows brightly under UV light. It is very effective. The process of charging the system is relatively time consuming and requires special equipment, the two main contributors to expensive repairs.

9/4/13 $232
The first round of diagnostics. This determined that the shaft seal on the compressor was bad. 18 years was all it could take. This required replacement of the compressor. I also learned at this time that when the compressor is replaced you also need to replace the expansion valve and drier. The shop was kind enough to provide an estimate of $1125 for the repairs.

9/5/13 $285
I ordered all the stuff necessary to do this job. The compressor, drier, expansion valve, and other small parts. I was able to get all this stuff replaced on a Saturday, but I still had to take it back to the shop to get it charged and leak checked.

9/19/13 $204
This finished the initial repair. They charged the system and returned it to me. At this point I had saved $636. The system was online and I thought I was in the clear.

That feeling was relatively short lived. My trip to Utah had been cancelled, but the AC would have worked. A couple of months went by and I noticed that the air wasn't blowing cold anymore. As you might imagine, this was disappointing, but now it was winter so I decided not to act.

5/16/14 $42
I had the truck back in the shop for another diagnostic. For as little as they charged me, it seems more like a token charge than anything. Anyway, they found that the pipe between the compressor and the condenser was bad.

5/23/14 $438
I had them do this work because the savings would be relatively small to do it myself. They ended up changing the pipes on both sides of the compressor and recharging the system. Again, I figured I must surely be in the clear.

Again, this feeling was short lived. If you're keeping track, now I'm up to $1201.

And it still doesn't work.

Now we're into the summer of 2014 and this began a long period of procrastination. Fall of 2014 was extremely busy for us. I was busy at work and at home getting ready to go to Japan. Dealing with this was LOW on the priority, but it still bugged me. Of course, then we were in Japan, and it mattered even less.

This past summer in 2015, getting the AC working was a high priority for me. I wanted the functionality back because I hate it when the truck doesn't have full functionality. I figured the system had leaked dry again, and at its last charge it had dye in the system. The only part of the system that hadn't been leak checked was the inaccessible portion inside the dashboard, namely the evaporator and expansion valve. When I had removed the evaporator to replace the expansion valve in the first place, I cleaned a lot of dried leaves and crud off of it. I think this allowed some deterioration of the thing. So I pulled it again and looked it over with a UV light that I had bought. Sure enough it had dye all over it. Time to replace it.

6/18/15 $80
New evaporator core. The swap out is pretty straightforward. It had better be, anyway. This was the third time I took it out. Now the total is $1281.

By this point I was tire of taking my truck to the shop for AC charging. My buddy Ned is good at refrigeration and he has many of the necessary tools as well as a bulk container of R134a. After changing the evaporator I took it to Ned's for a charge.

The charge seemed to be going well. The engine was running nice, all the indicators were good, and we again seemed to be in the clear. Then we turned the engine off and noticed a loud hissing. We thought the joint at the top of the drier was leaking, but we wanted to put eyes on it. You have to take apart the grill and the headlight to get in there. When we got in there we discovered the pipe on the outlet side of the drier was leaking like crazy.

At least this is a good smoking gun. Proof positive that there is a problem and you know exactly what it is.

7/17/15 $154
New AC pipe and drier. Note that this is the second new drier. It was relatively easy to swap out. AC isn't really that hard, the trick is knowing the certain little details that will determine your success or failure. On the day I did this swap, I also borrowed Ned's tools to do the charge myself. There were two little snafus in this section of work. I'll go into those later.

The bottom line is I got the system running that day. The final total is now $1435, but it was working.

A friend at work said that it seems like I'm destined to never have AC in that truck. I sure showed her.

Until this last Thursday. October 15, 2015. I was out doing some errands when the engine suddenly began whining with a shriek I never knew a car could make and still otherwise run fine. It was the AC compressor clutch slipping. I later determined it was slipping because the compressor is seized. Compressors that are designed for gas are done in by compressing liquid. If they were for liquid we would call them pumps.

This is what I think happened. Oil level in the system is a critical attribute. Too little and you will burn up the compressor. Too much and you might seize the compressor. I'm pretty sure I had too much oil in it. The instructions that came with the drier said to put a small amount of carefully measured oil in it prior to assembly. I measured it with a syringe. As I was adding oil, it overflowed well below the specified amount. There was also a discrepancy between the Chilton manual and the pamphlet that came with the drier. I was going with the pamphlet because I figured it must be more accurate than the Chilton. When it overflowed I got confused and didn't know what else to do, so I dumped out about half of what I had added and proceeded with the installation. This was the first snafu. The second was that the system charged much faster than I thought it would. Before I knew it I was about 0.1 pounds over the charge specification. It's a small amount but could be enough.

While it was running during the last three months I noticed the expansion valve was very noisy. I don't know if that had anything to do with it. Maybe excess oil causes the flow dynamics to change which causes extra noise. I may never know.

So here I am. I have a broken AC system that has cost me $1435. If I was to allow myself further down the rabbit hole, the next step would be another $285 for a compressor, expansion valve, and drier. Having acquired the skills to charge it myself I would avoid more shop charges for that work. I hate to spend more on this broken system, but on the other hand, the other system components are now in great shape. By replacing the compressor and drier I would be able to start from a clean slate. I now know how to add the correct amount of refrigerant as well as the correct amount of oil. It's just one tiny step and I'll be back up and running for another 15 years.

It seems like I've heard that line before. Time to tap out.
And I thought the power steering story was expensive.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Soggy Backpacking

This last weekend I had another opportunity to go with by friend Brent on a short overnight excursion. This time we went to Lena Lake. I've avoided going to Lena Lake for some time. It's sort of a rite of passage for the area. "What do you mean you've never been to Lena Lake?!" is the most common response when I say I haven't been there. But after all, if everyone has been there, then it most likely means that there will always be lots of people there. And that's why I've never been. Don't like people.

Last weekend was no exception. It was pretty rainy, so we figured there would be less people up there. I'm not sure if we were right or not because there were still more people there than I like. It was a fun hike anyway. Since we went up Friday we had a pretty easy time finding a spot. Saturday/Sunday people would have had more trouble.

This trip was pretty memorable, mainly due to the amount of rain we got. It's been a long time since I backpacked in that kind of rain. It wasn't even that bad, though, because we got camp all set before the rain came on.

I was glad for that because I'm still using my Hennessey tarp for shelter. Brent uses his Hennessey hammock. It's been a couple years now that I use my tarp for backpacking instead of my tent, but I've never had to weather any real weather, if you will. So I learned a lot from this experience and I wanted to share some thoughts.

One nice thing was I didn't have to pump any water. I was able to collect more than what I needed off my tarp. The down side to this was I had a little space on the tarp where the water pooled a little. I need to work on setting the tarp in this free-standing configuration. I have a hard time getting the tension right.

The cloud cover also served to keep the temperature very comfortable. I was quite toasty in my down bag. Speaking of the bag, I was a little concerned about taking the down bag since I knew were risking rain. The rain was falling straight down due to the calm air, so I stayed dry.

As I said, the night was pretty comfy despite the rain. I got in bed about 8:15 since the alternative was sitting in the rain. I didn't fall asleep for an hour or so which left me wishing I had brought a notebook.

At about 1:30 am I woke up to find that the rain had quit and the clouds were moving around. From where I was laying I had a perfect view of a nearly full moon through an opening in the trees. One of the things I like about tarp camping is I get to enjoy sights like that without getting out of my toasty sleeping bag.

Camp kitchen. All the comforts of home on a wet log. In the morning the world was wet, but it wasn't falling anymore. It was a pleasant morning.

Here's a little shot into my pack. I find that I can use the space in my pack a little better if I just stuff my sleeping bag right into my pack. The therm-a-rest is rolled up and stuffed down the side, also without stuff sack. On top of that I put my few clothes, first aid kit, utility bag, jet boil. My pack is a Osprey Stratos 36. At 36 liter, it works great for a single overnight, short trips.

Here are some great shots from around the lake.

This was a cool rock on the far side of the lake. Check out the people standing on it.

This is Lena Creek on the way back down.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

More Fun

It's been too long since that last post. Not to worry, though, I have some fun stuff you show you.

This Saturday we packed up the family and headed down to Sea Paradise. They had some awesome aquariums and some fun rides. I haven't ridden a roller coaster in years and today I had a chance to. Among other things.

First we checked out the aquariums. Jerry always loves watching fish.

After the aquariums we had to get our seat for the mammal show. This was a lot of fun. Dolphins, Beluga Whales, Seals, penguins, it was all fun.

The dolphins are particularly talented.

In the same tank as the mammal show, this guy was swimming around. He's a whale shark and he's not small. It was cool to see this big guy.

 After the mammal show it was time for food. They had Korean Barbeque. We've recently learned of the virtues of Korean Barbeque, so we decided this was the best choice. A mixture of sea food and meat. Very delicious.

This was one of the options we didn't choose.

After lunch, Jerry took pity on us and crashed in the stroller for about an hour. We took advantage of the time to hit the roller coaster.

They had a pretty cool roller coaster called Leviathan. There weren't any major drops or loops, but this one was FAST. Also, it's cool because it's built half over the water and half on land.

The other ride I did was Blue Fall, which is one of those tall towers that lets you experience free fall. That was something I've never experienced, and I hate to admit that I wasn't prepared for it. I survived, though.

We finished out the day with some of the tamer rides for Jerry. I'm a big fan of Courage the Cowardly Dog. Gotta love that Cartoon Network.

Red Baron, Powerpuff Style!

Peter Pan.

So you know those obnoxious parents at amusement parks? You know the ones. One of them is sitting by an empty stroller looking like they're enjoying the bench a little more than they should be enjoying an ordinary bench. The other is crammed into a ride that is clearly made for people smaller than them.

No? Yeah, I don't know what that's like either.

Finally, after the merry-go-round we'd had enough and headed out. Fun times.

Friday, March 20, 2015

50% Review

At work we have a 50% review when we're halfway done with the project. I thought I would do my own 50% review since now we're a little over half done with out trip.

So far it's been just like normal life in that there are things you'll take and things you'll leave. So here goes, some things I'll miss and some things I won't miss.

1. Wrangling Jerry in a two bedroom apartment - Won't Miss

Just look at that face. How could you think that there is treachery behind those eyes? No, that's not the right word. He really doesn't have malicious intent, but he is an energetic kiddo. I don't wish for him to be less energetic because I think it's a great part of his personality. We just need more space to express it.

2. Japanese Grocery Stores - Miss & Won't Miss

I go both ways on this. I like the Japanese treats (they have excellent snacks) and the ready to eat food section. The produce is usually really good quality, although, if it's out of season you're out of luck. But I'll be glad to be back in the states where I can go to Albertson's or Fred Meyer and get all the stuff I'm used to, then take it to the parking lot and throw it in my car, and drive it home. We have the commissary here, but I have to do all the shopping and I have to schlep it all home on my bike. (That's really something to see, by the way, my bike with front and back baskets full to the brim with groceries.)

3. Trains - Miss

I haven't talked to Jerry about this specifically, but I'm sure he would agree that riding the trains has been a very fun part of our experience. The picture above is from our balcony. When the weather is nice sometimes Jerry and I will watch the trains pull in and out. This is the JR Yokosuka Station.

4. The Balcony - Miss

Honestly we don't spend enough time out here. In our defense, though, we have been here in the winter. I'm sure we'll be out there more over the next few weeks. Part of the problem is also that there is nowhere to sit out there and I'm not interested in buying patio furniture.

That metal lid that Jerry is standing on (which I'm not supposed to let him stand on) is in both pictures. It can give you an idea of the balcony layout. The lid is a fire escape. You open it and a ladder drops down to the level below.

5. The Couch - WON'T MISS (all caps on purpose)

Yeah. It's a 3/4 scale Ikea couch. By that I mean it's 3/4 the size of even an Ikea couch. It helps cut down on TV watching and video game playing by making your butt fall asleep and your back hurt. I think this is the secret of Japanese fitness. If all Americans had couches like this, we would look like the Japanese. Sometimes I come home in the early morning and I don't want to wake Chelsea and Jerry so I'll just lie down on the couch. I'm not tall, and I still have to hand my legs over the end.

I also don't like the rug on the floor. It has about zero grip on the floor so it's always moving around and if you're not careful, you'll end up on your butt. When you're trying to stand up from the unusually low couch, the rug waits until you're almost up and then slips. It is sentient. I swear.

6. The Bed - Won't Miss

When it comes to softness, the bed takes cues from the couch. I'm sure they meet about it when we leave. The comforter is not quilted so  it's not long before it's just a wad of batting wrapped in cloth. See the two pillows on the floor to the left? Those are the Japanese pillows that were in the room. They have rice pillows here. Did you know that? Neither did I. Anyway, after a week of sleeping on those we couldn't take it anymore and we bought new ones at the NEX. Ironically, I will miss my new NEX pillow.

Just like the couch, this bed is unusually low. It's easily half the height of our bed at home. I don't know about you, but in the morning I'm not usually ready to be standing up. I prefer more of a sliding motion into a standing position.

7. The View - Miss

I really enjoy the view. It's mostly ships and shipyard, but I like the industrial beauty of it. The view is especially pretty at night.

8. Putting Jerry to bed in this room - Won't Miss

This is really challenging about living here. Jerry doesn't sleep well in here so it takes him a long time to fall asleep and he usually wakes up in the early morning and wants to come into our bed. The doors can't be latched and provide almost no protection from the light and sound of the rest of the house. Basically, when Jerry is sleeping (yes we have a noisemaker) you have to be really quiet in the house and you can't turn on the living room lights. In order for Chelsea and I to watch a movie or TV show we plug in an audio extension cord with a splitter and we both wear earbuds.

9. Riding the elevator - Won't Miss

I'm pretty sure Jerry will miss it, but I won't miss his demands to push the button himself. In this picture Jerry and I were on our way to the 17th floor to take the next picture.

10. Apartment Life - Won't Miss

This is our building from the inside. 

As Homer Simpson put it, let's go back to that place where our beds and TV is. I look forward to getting back home and back to life. This has been enjoyable so far, but there's still a lot to do before we head back. It will be nice to get back to my dog, my cars, and my mountain bike.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

JR East Railway Museum

Trains are a major part of life here in Japan. I mean, they shaped the country decades ago, just like they did in the US, but even today they are the main source of people moving. Riding the trains is one of the fun things about coming to Japan.

So this weekend I talked Chelsea into going to the JR East Railway Museum in Saitama. You access it from the Omiya station on the JR Keihin Tohoku line, north of Tokyo. It's the same line you would use to access Ueno and Akihabara. Since I take pictures, also like to share them. Here are some of the better ones from this weekend.

It was fitting that we had to spend two hours on a train to get to the Railway Museum.

This is the New Shuttle from Omiya to the Railway Museum. It looks like a train, but if you look close, you can see that there are no rails. It has tires. 

Just in case you're wondering, that french fries being dipped in orange juice. My favorite.

Classic steam locomotive.

Early bullet train. They call them the Shinkansen. I think this was  came from about 1980 or so. It was very high-tech.

The inside of the shinkansen looks more like an airplane than a train.

They also had this cutaway of a steam locomotive. I thought it was great.

Cool stained glass.

Here's a bird's eye view.

Model trains everywhere. That would be fun.

Check out for a copy of the video of Jerry chasing a model train.