Home Improvement Part 6

Home Improvements, Part 6

This is part 6 in a sequence. If you want to begin at the beginning, you can go to Part 1. The following shows the contents for this and adjacent parts.

Part 5 (separate page)
  • Roof Repair
  • Pool Stuff
  • Misc.
Part 6 (this page) Part 7 (separate page)
  • Wallpaper Removal (continued)
  • ...

(initial section posted 12/13/15)

New Driveway

One of the things that had bubbled up to the top of my list that I was determined to get done in 2015 was to get a new driveway. The old driveway was asphalt, and it was showing major signs of age, as asphalt is wont to do--potholes, crumbly edges, cracks, etc. (Sorry, I neglected to get a "before" picture.)

I did a lot of research and decided to have the new driveway done in concrete. Although it would be more expensive than replacing the asphalt, it requires much less maintenance. And at this point in my life, I'm into minimal maintenance.

So I did some more research, picked a company called A Plus Concrete Restoration that (obviously) specialized in concrete, and that also had good reviews and a good rating by the BBB. (I wasn't able to use the USAA service for this, not sure why...) And in mid-March they were able to start:
Step 1: Clear out the old driveway.
Step 2: Pour for the new driveway. (This happened about 3 weeks after the excavation because of inspection stuff.)
The still-wet new driveway, as seen from the garage.
Final result: Finished driveway. Note how they even installed new sod along the edges where they'd dug it up.

So, early April, I had a new driveway, and could cross that item off the never-ending list.

(next section posted 12/17/15)

Outdoor Lighting


Our front yard has always been a bit dark at night. There is a street light out front, but it mainly lights the street. We do have a front porch light, but it's still a bit of a walk from the driveway to the front door. Many houses have lights on either side of their garage door, but ours didn't.

Over the years I've thought about how to solve this issue. Many years ago, I put Malibu lights along the walk, but they're not all that reliable. So this year I decided to add a motion-activated floodlight over the garage door. See pic at right.

Side and Back

Meanwhile, while I'd been working on other outside stuff (pool area, etc.), I noticed that the light fixtures outside the side and back doors were looking pretty crappy (see pic at left) and needed to be replaced. The one I call the back door leads from the master bath to the pool area; you can see that light any time you're around the pool area. The one I call the side door leads from the garage to the side of the house and is almost never used. The light there is barely visible from the street (if at all) because there's a tree on that side of the house. Both doors had that same fancy light fixture outside them.

So, I started looking for what I wanted to replace them with, mostly online. I knew immediately that I didn't want an old-fashioned, traditional look; I preferred something more contemporary. I actually kinda liked the old fixtures, but wasn't having much luck finding something similar that didn't just seem cheap. I did quickly decide that the side door didn't need a fancy fixture, since it's mostly unused and essentially unseen as well. So I figured I'd just get a simple jelly-jar type fixture for that one.

It took a while, but I finally picked out a different sort of design that I thought would work for the back door. After I got it installed, I was quite pleased with it (pic at right). And the pic of the jelly jar light on the side door is below:

(next section posted 5/14/16)

Toilet Adventures

I have 2-1/2 bathrooms in the house, and of course the toilets require maintenance from time to time. Generally, I wouldn't bother posting here, but I think recent happenings were actually be somewhat interesting. I learned some things.

For some time, I'd been having an issue with ghost flushing of the master toilet. In case you haven't heard that term before, it's when the tank suddenly starts to refill for no apparent reason. It usually lasts just a second or two. Sometimes it's just a temporary glitch, but sometimes it recurs and is a symptom that something needs fixing. Typically, it means the flapper-thing has gotten deteriorated a bit, causing water to leak slowly out of the tank into the bowl; after a while, the water level in the tank gets low enough to trigger the refill valve to open, causing the ghost flush.

Usually this is a simple enough fix: you just replace the flapper. Alas, when I opened the top of the tank intending to do this for the master toilet, I discovered it did not have a regular flapper. Instead, it had some sort of nested plastic pipe-things in there, and it wasn't at all obvious to me what to do with them. Quick research only showed me standard flappers. So, I put off the task until I could do more research, but it wasn't a high priority. It's not like it was leaking on the floor or anything.

So, it didn't bubble up to the top of my priority list until the "guest" toilet (the one in the other full bath) also started ghost flushing. This toilet also some kind of pipe contraption inside the tank. It was different from the master toilet, but it still was totally unobvious to me. In this case, though, I remembered a plumber once telling me it was a "Mansfield" toilet. So I Googled "Mansfield toilet ghost flushing" and got some very useful hits... YouTube has a bunch of really good videos for these kind of things.

LESSON #1: Google and YouTube are your friends.

So, after watching a couple of YouTube videos, and noticing they looked exactly like my toilet's innards, I decided I could do this. So I went to Home Depot, got the part (a rubber ring) that matched the video, and set to work. It was easy, just like the video showed... Just a matter of unscrewing the right thing to get to the actual part that needed to be replaced. Alas, the part I had bought didn't match. Turns out there are a couple of different models of Mansfield toilets, and although they're otherwise similar, they require different rubber rings. So, after another trip to HD to replace the part, I was able to get it done, and yay, no more ghost flushing.

LESSON #2: Bring the part you're replacing to the store to help make sure you get the right new part.

As I was checking out videos for Mansfield, I also saw some similar videos for what looked like my master toilet. They were identified as for "Kohler canister" style. I noted that my toilet was, in fact, a Kohler, so I figured I would go ahead and do that one too. It was a bit more difficult (it was harder to unscrew the thing I needed to unscrew), but, again, I was able to get it done and put the toilet back the way it was. Alas, replacing the part in this case did NOT fix the ghost-flushing problem. Maybe made it a little less, but still there. The info I'd seen online indicated that sometimes you can turn the rubber ring upside-down and get a better result, so I figured I'd do that... but it had been so annoying trying to unscrew the first time that I just didn't want to do it again just then. So I put it off again.

So, some time later I had a different issue with the half-bath toilet. Many years ago, I had a plumber work on it for some issue, and when he was done, the issue (which I don't exactly recall now) was OK, but I noticed that the bowl wasn't filling as much as it had previously. Thinking that was odd, I opened the top of the tank and noticed a plastic hose-thing that looked like maybe it was supposed to point into a plastic pipe that seemed to lead straight down to the bowl part. I experimented with flushing the toilet while making sure the hosey-thing did point into the pipey-thing, and sure enough, that did make the bowl fill properly. But the hosey-thing didn't want to STAY in that position, so I rigged up a cable-tie to get it to stay in place. (I've since learned the hosey-thing is called a "fill valve tube" and the the pipey-thing that goes down to the bowl is the "overflow tube," and the fill valve tube is indeed supposed to point into the overflow tube.)

LESSON #3: Check where your fill valve tube goes.

So everything with the half-bath toilet was fine for many years, until recently when I heard and saw some water spray from inside the tank after flushing. Sure enough, the fill valve tube had popped out of the overflow tube again because the cable-tie had broken (plastic, gonna rot away eventually). It was spraying because the hose was pointing in a weird direction instead of down into the tank. I tried the cable-tie thing again, but I was unable to get it to work this time; apparently the hose had gotten a bit stiffer with age and could no longer be bent the way I needed it.

So, I figured, shouldn't be too hard to replace the hose. Again to Home Depot... found some tubing in the plumbing dept. that looked like it would work. First attempt, I apparently cut it a little short, because it popped out of the overflow tube when the water started flowing through it. So, second attempt, I made sure it was long enough to go down into the tube and stay there. So, that problem was fixed.

Except then this toilet started with the ghost flushing! OK, so standard diagnostic question is what changed recently, and I thought about poking that hose way down the overflow tube. Its end was now actually below the surface of the water, and it occurred to me this might enable a siphon effect, which might cause the tank water to lower, which might cause the ghost.

So I went online to see what I could find out, and sure enough, my assumption turned out to be confirmed. You need to keep the end of the fill valve tube above the fill level of the tank. And, I found out that getting the tube to stay in the right spot is a common problem, so they actually make clips for that specific purpose. I tried making one out of a paper clip, as suggested online, but couldn't get a shape that would work... and those are only short-term because they rust anyway. Cable tie wasn't working either. Then I found I had, somewhere around the house, a "toilet repair kit" with several assorted parts left over in it. And among those parts was a fill valve tube with a separate clip. I was able to use that clip, and Yay! It worked!

Then it occurred to me that the fill valve tube placement might be the issue that was causing ghost flushing with the master toilet as well. I checked, and sure enough: the tube was aimed into the inside of the outer canister-thing, and was below the water level. I adusted it so it was aimed into the center part of the tube, where there was a spot apparently designed to help hold it in the right position. So, that problem was solved also.

LESSON #3 (redux): Check where your fill valve tube goes.

But the adventures weren't over yet. It wasn't long after that that I went into the half-bath and noticed a small puddle of water on the floor. My first thought was that the tube had popped off the clip and was spraying where it shouldn't, so I opened the tank to check, but no, it was fine. The puddle was just water, so I knew it wasn't that one of the cats had an accident. So, I was feeling some dread as I investigated and saw that there was water dripping from where the toilet tank meets the bowl.

So, first priority was to stop the dripping on the floor, so I got a bucket to catch any further drips. Then I turned off the water, flushed to empty the tank, and got some towels to dry it out.

After that I had to think what to do next. Call a plumber? Get a new toilet thru Home Depot? Any chance I might fix it myself? I did a bit of research online. I figured the problem might just be it needed a new gasket, but replacing that would mean removing the whole tank, and I wasn't too confident about that.

As it turned out, I had a guy coming over that day to remove the solar pool heating panels from the roof (they were old, no longer functional). When I told him I might have to leave to get a new toilet, he offered to take a look at the problem (not to fix it, just to provide some advice). He said it didn't look like the tank was cracked or anything, so I probably didn't need a new toilet. Probably it was just the gasket, and I could get a kit to fix that for about $20 and I could probably even do it myself. Just be careful not to tighten the bolts too much or you might actually crack the tank and then you would really need to replace the toilet. So that inspired me to at least check out a few more YouTube videos on that subject. It didn't look too bad.

That same day I had lunch with a friend who is retired from the plumbing biz. He reiterated the "Be careful not to overtighten the bolts," and offered this bit of advice: Use something like cardboard (he said the coasters from the restaurant would work well), cut into small squares, and stack a few together to help position the tank on top of the bowl. That will help you tighten the bolts evenly.

So, armed with all the advice from these people and the YouTube videos, I decided to go ahead and try it. I was very careful with the tank: it was heavy, but I didn't need to actually lift it up--I could let it sit on top of the bowl. I replaced the gasket, bolts, and washers. I used my friend's advice to help balance the tank while I tightened the bolts (so I didn't need an assistant for that part, as one of the YouTube videos suggested).

The only hard part was getting the bolts tight enough so they wouldn't leak again. I'd tighten them 'til I thought they were good, then pour a cup of water into the tank to see if it leaked or not. (Another tip... a paper towel is a good thing to put under the potential leak, because it's easy to see drips on a paper towel.) After a few tries, it didn't seem to leak, so I turned on the water to refill the tank. Alas, too soon. Drain the tank again (needed to reach the bolts), try some more. I learned to feel the bolts where they stuck out from the bottom, because they might be wet even if they weren't actually dripping on the paper towel. Tighten, test, repeat. I think it took about 3-4 days before everything actually stayed dry... But, I did it, and we're good now!

LESSON #4: Heed the advice of experts, have patience, and check your work.

(next section posted 6/6/16)


I've long been impressed with "catified" houses (most notable being the Cats' House in California, but alas it's been sold and de-catified... but try Googling it anyway). I've thought my cats would enjoy it if I did something similar for them, but I haven't been too keen on actually poking holes through my walls.

So, for a long time I've been pondering ways I might give the cats some interesting space without structurally changing the house. The wall unit in the living room was a nice height, with several feet of space across the top. That could be cool if I could just set up some way for the cats to get up there fairly easily. A plain ramp would be too steep, too long. Stairs would be too complex to build.

After a lot of pondering, I determined that 3 ramps in a zigzag would work, and would require nothing more than gravity to hold it together. I picked up a couple of small 2'x6' carpet runners for it, because I knew I wanted it to be carpeted so the cats could scratch. Then I got some plywood. Conveniently, the ramps needed to be about 16" wide, which is exactly 1/3 the width of a piece of plywood, so I had Home Depot cut it in 3 pieces of that width (they do 2 cuts for free).

It took a while before I could get started on the project, but once I did, the bottom section went very quickly. I had a jig saw to cut the plywood to the proper length, and a staple gun to tack the carpet to the plywood. The carpet runner I had was the perfect size; it fully covered the plywood with a few inches extra to turn under the bottom, which meant I had nice finished edges, and the only cutting I had to do was to fit the corners.

So, I put the bottom section into position, and the cats almost immediately took to it. Of course, it was basically just a large scratching post at that point. (Sorry, no picture.)

Alas, the next 2 sections were not going to be so easy, because I needed to put a hole in each piece to enable the cats to get from one layer to another. Making the hole wasn't the hard part; I did have the jigsaw. It was finishing it: What to do with the raw edges around the carpet hole? What to do with the underside of the piece? The bottom section was so close to the floor it didn't need finishing, but the bottoms of the other 2 sections would be visible, so I needed to do something with them.

After a lot more pondering, I finally settled on a solution: I would glue fabric to the bottom (pic at right shows cutting the fabric to fit in prep for gluing), then tack the carpet piece down, then hand-sew a strip of fabric around the edge of the hole to join the carpet to the fabric on the underside. After getting some suitable fabric from a friend (who always has lots of extra fabric), the 2nd section went together fairly easily. Below pic shows the first 2 sections installed:

Alas (again), I had a new issue with the 3rd section. (I knew it might be some time before I could add the 3rd section, which is why I put the cat bed at the top of the second section in the meanwhile, which you see in the above pic.) The problem was that I had used up the carpet pieces I already had, and could no longer find similar ones. Also, this last piece would have to be longer, so I'd need a bigger piece of carpet. It took a while, but I eventually found something that I thought would be suitable via homedepot.com. It was an unusual type of carpet, more like textured felt than your usual yarn-looped-thru-backing-material type carpet. But that was a good thing, because it was easy to cut to size. So finally, I was able to finish the last section and install it. Below, a straight-on view and an angled view (so you can see the holes).


It took me a long time to get it all together, but it didn't take long at all for Mimi to find her way to the top:

(next section posted 11/22/16)

Master Bedroom Valence

Our house had been a model when we bought it, so it came with window treatments (and some wall treatments, like the wallpaper discussed previously). One of these was a valence in the master bedroom, which covered not just the two windows, but the space in between as well, which meant it went across the entire wall. It was a long time ago that we first moved in, and I don't recall whether it originally served any purpose other than decorative. Since then, however, we put up new drapery rods to help cover the windows, and the valence helps disguise those. We also put up panelling to cover the wallpaper that was originally there, and the valence helps hide the seam in the panelling (see pic at right, with valence removed)... which means it does serve an important purpose now.

The thing is built out of plywood, and originally was covered with a print fabric that sort-of coordinated with the print wallpaper. So when we put up the panelling, the fabric needed to change also, so I re-covered it with plain black fabric, which was not only good as a neutral, but actually coordinated very well with some of the bedroom decor we had at the time. That was probably 25 years ago or so.

The passage of time eventually started to fade the fabric, and of late the fading had started to become noticeable, especially since I pieced together 2 different black fabrics to make the new cover back then, and one of them faded a lot faster than the other one. So, I knew I needed to re-cover it again.

Meanwhile, I'd been having another issue with the valence. It's made with a flat top, which collects dust. It's a nuisance to clean, especially because the surface is mainly fabric. I have to use a portable vacuum with an upholstery attachment, and climb up and down a ladder several times to do it. I was wondering if there wasn't something I could do to make that process easier.

It occurred to me that if I used a loose piece of fabric to cover the top, and hung it over the edge a bit, I could just take that fabric off and throw it in the wash to clean it. I'd still need to use the ladder to put it back up, but I wouldn't need to deal with the vacuum... and, it would probably be cleaner too.

So that was the plan. I got the valence down off the wall, and I removed the old black fabric. It's a very long valence, so there's a joint in the middle of the top where two boards are joined end-to-end. I noticed that joint was a little loose (not surprising since it's been taken down and put up a few times, what with the recovering and once or twice painting the walls, and that spot is a stress point), so I decided I might as well fix it. Some carpenter's glue into the joint and attaching a thin piece of wood underneath (pic at left), and it felt much sturdier.

Then it was just a matter of getting out my old staple gun and recovering the valence with new fabric. (I made sure to use all the same fabric, in a single piece, this time.) See pics below, showing "in process" and "finished". (You may note I never removed the original print fabric from the valence... that's because the valence is padded and that fabric is holding in the padding.)

Then, replacing the valence up on the wall:

I needed to do some sewing to make sure the removeable top piece would have finished edges before I could put that up as well. I had imagined it hanging down about the same length as the whole valence, but it wasn't wide enough for that, so I folded it so it just hangs down a little. I think it looks OK:


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