Saturday, January 25 2020
I cut my Saturday Morning coffee drinking a little short today so that I could make another firewood salvaging foray before the arrival of forecasted rains. I returned to the place where I'd felled that tree along the Stick Trail yesterday. I'd said it was maybe a third of a mile from home, but now I'm thinking it's more like a half mile. I brought the saw so I could cut more of it up, and managed to assemble a fairly heavy pack of nearly ready-to-burn wood. I took it directly to the garage so it would be out of the rain and I could split it (some of the pieces were big) at my leisure. By the time I was done with all that, the first sprinkles of rain were already falling.
Because 'd known it would be raining today and unsuitable for much outdoor work, I'd pre-arranged to do some landlording tasks today. Originally these were just going to be minor things at the Brewster Street house, but overnight a panel from the kitchen's drop ceiling had collapsed in the 1L unit in the Downs, meaning I'd have to go there as well. Originally we'd been led to believe the problems at Brewster Street were more serious, that there was a mold problem in the basement from an unexplained source of moisture, but since then we'd learned that the problem was a simple leak in a rubber washing machine hose. So Gretchen had said she would be coming with me on my landlording errands. But now that there was a ceiling collapse to deal with, it seemed she should probably still be coming. We took the Subaru, since it meant I could put the step ladder in the back without having to tie it to the roof. (By now the rain was coming down hard and it wouldn't've been fun to be out in the rain untying and tying a ladder to a roof.)
The first task at the Brewster Street house was to open the ceiling light in the kitchen and replace one of the bulbs. Someone had overtightened the glass cover on that light, making it so difficult to remove that the whole fixture came loose from the ceiling as I tried. With a little water, though, I was able to dissolve whatever adhesive had permeated the joint as an ærosol and glued it in place. That kitchen was a pretty nasty place to work due to all the grease that had condensed out onto its various surfaces. This was particularly true of the under surface of the microwave, where I had to remove a panel to expose a blown lightbulb. Down in the basement, the replacement hose we'd brought was about three inches too short, but we managed to schooch the machines enough to make it work. (Interesting, there was no smell of mold in the basement whatsoever.) As always happens at Brewster, once we were there, the tenant had other problems she wanted fixed. There were a couple of light switches that either didn't work at all or worked unreliably (the tenant used the term "short," though that was clearly not the problem.) The house is old and spent some time abandoned, so there will probably always be a long list of issues like this. Normally I try to limit fixes to the pre-arranged ones so as to avoid scope creep, but since we had some time to kill before going to the Downs Street house, we decided to fix the switch problems as well. First, though, we would need to get some supplies at Herzog's: two SPST light switches ($1 each) and a replacement bulb for the microwave. Just before we left there, Gretchen remembered she needed to make a key, so while she did that, I ran through the downpour to the Ghettoford to get soy milk and oat milk.
Back at the Brewster Street house, I opened the first switch plate with dread, since one never really knows what one is going to find when one goes behind the scrim in an old house, particularly when it comes to things like plumbing and wiring. In this case, the wire was definitely old. I sent Gretchen down to the circuit breaker box and she switched off circuits until the light controlled by the switch winked out, though to be sure the circuit I would be working with was dead, I used a multimeter. That switch replacement was easy. But when we swapped the switch in an attic circuit, we had the problem of all the distance that lay between the basement circuit breakers and the place where the work would be done (and I'd forgotten to bring my phone). This particular switch wasn't actually working at all, so we used a nearby lightbulb as a proxy, hoping its winking out would mean that Gretchen had turned off the right circuit breaker. But then it turned out that even with that proxy light off, the circuit I needed to work with was still energized (as revealed by the multimeter). This kind of blew Gretchen's mind. It's not that she has any particular electrical knowledge, but she freely extrapolates based on the way things "should" be and would've assumed the proxy light being off was all the info we'd need to proceed. But old houses play by their own rules, and the multimeter doesn't lie. Not knowing what else to do, I had Gretchen turn off all the 120 volt circuit breakers in the house, and only then was the circuit that I needed to work on dead. The wires in the attic were much newer than the wires I'd dealt with downstairs, suggesting the finishing of the attic was done in recent decades. On the drive across town, I asked Gretchen if she'd learned anything, since she'd just seen the basics of household wiring. She said she had and that "it's not rocket science," though she'd been surprised how complicated things had gotten when we were attempting to de-energize that second switch.
At Downs Street, our tenant in 1L had awaken from her nightshift and was ready to show us her kitchen. She'd already cleaned up the mess, which amounted to a single fallen dropped-ceiling panel. That panel had included the kitchen's ceiling light, whose wires had pulled loose. I'd installed that light only a couple months before, and already it was ruined. The culprit was water from the bathtub in the unit upstairs, which had somehow made its way through the floor and into the insulation around the light. With the added mass of the water, the ceiling framework could no longer support the panel, and it had slipped free and fallen. I set up the step ladder to look to see if any water was still coming through, but I didn't see any. Beyond getting a makeshift light working, there was little else I could do. But figuring out what wires carried what was difficult. There was a mass of wires that had been wrapped in electrical tape and a couple wire nuts, one of which contained a few thin strands from a stranded wire that had apparently pulled loose. Using the multimeter, I couldn't tell for sure which wire was hot. So I unwrapped tape until I exposed other wires. I could reach a brass fitting on the bathtub upstairs, and I was able to use this as a known ground to finally establish which wire was hot. At that point I was confident enough to wire in a bulb for temporary use as a kitchen light. But as I tightened the wire nut over a junction on the hot wire, the tip of the wirenut suddenly failed and the wire busted through, touching my finger. Fortunately, I wasn't grounded at the time, so all I felt was the startle of the sharp strands digging into my flesh. After that experience, though, I decided it was best to de-energize all the 120 volt circuits in the apartment at the circuit breaker box. We left apartment 1L with a missing ceiling panel and a single naked bulb hanging from a wire in the void.
Next we had to go upstairs to see if there was anything wrong with the bathtub.
The caulk all looked good around the tub, though after running some water for a bit, I saw a small trickle of water coming from the tub's overflow connection. Using one of the tenant's large screwdrivers, I tightened the screws on that connection, hoping to seal the overflow fitting better in its big rubber washer. Meanwhile, Gretchen was chit-chatting about Sloan Kettering's amazing cancer center. Water from this very tub had overflowed into the apartment below in the past, and in those cases I was pretty sure the problem was something that the upstairs tenant wouldn't want to admit to: an overflowed toilet or tub. That had probably also happened in this case, perhaps because the visiting mom was unfamiliar with the bathroom.
After all that landlording, I was in a mood to go get dinner. So I drove us to the Yum Yum in Uptown, and we got one of the little tables in that back side room. Before even touching the menu, I washed my hands thoroughly to get all the landlording cooties off my hands. Gretchen and I split an Impossible burger and the Korean tacos and I had a can of Everything's Coming Up IPA from Mill House Brewery (get it?). For some reason all the waitresses at Yum Yum are all fat and not very good at their jobs. I found myself wondering if perhaps the management hires fat waitresses to make the space a desirable date location for jealous girlfriends.
Neville on the Ottoman in front of the woodstove this morning. Also, Charles the Cat amid some of the books Gretchen brought back from the book sellers' conference in Baltimore. Click to enlarge.
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