This is a collection of some of my adventures (and misadventures) in home ownership and repair. This page will also act as an instruction manual should I ever try to sell my house. I would always recommend someone hire a professional if they feel uncomfortable doing a repair on their house. I do many of these repairs myself because it affords me an opportunity to learn more about how all these systems work and, often times, make improvements that otherwise probably would not happen. Whether you do it yourself or hire someone, there is always room for improvement!

Heating System

My house has two oil-fired forced air furnaces, one for the ground floor and one for the second floor. I like this setup because if one breaks down I still have heat on the other floor. Here is a picture of the setup with one of the covers removed. furnaces A few months after moving into my house in 2008 one of the furnaces stopped working. I went to take a look at it and the LED was showing a ‘soft lockout’. An oil fired furnace has a transformer that ignites the heating oil (diesel fuel) after it sprays out of the nozzle and there is a light-detecting cathode that checks for a flame. If a flame is not proven, the system resets and tries again. After three failed attempts it goes into a soft lockout. All of this is controlled by the primary control. After the primary control locks out, the user must push the reset button before the primary control will try again. After a certain number of soft lockouts, the system will go into hard lockout, at which time you have to call a technician.

I didn’t know anything about heating systems so I called for service and the technician replaced the primary control. I noticed that the new primary control was the same model number as the old one, but the ‘A’ model instead of the ‘B’ model. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference and the ‘A’ model was a simpler version that basically turned everything on and off at the same time. The ‘B’ version has what is call pre-purge and post-purge. Pre-purge and post-purge adjust the times of the fuel pump and ignitor so that the starts and stops are cleaner in terms of unburnt fuel. The pre-purge and post-purge features are also recommended by the manufacturer of my AFG burner. Now most people would just be happy with a working furnace and leave it at that, but not the DIYer in me. I researched the primary controls and found there was a new ‘universal’ version of the primary control that had all the possible features, plus it had a two line display with a wealth of information including the history of how long it takes to reach ignition. Primary Control My current primary control only had one LED and depending on what color it was and if it was flashing or not, that’s all the information it could give you. If this ‘universal’ primary control is so much better, why didn’t the technical give me that one? Maybe it was more expensive, but upon looking it up, it was only $90. That didn’t seem very expensive to me, so I bought one, looked up the wiring diagram online and hooked it up. That took some time because my setup didn’t have all the necessary wires. The new ‘universal’ control had many more wiring inputs due to the added feature set. I had to learn what L1 and L2 were, but I figured it out and got it working. I was so happy with it I ordered a second one and replaced the primary control in my other furnace as well. This was my first DIY project on this house.

Draft Inducer

The home inspection on my home mentioned that the draft on my (furnace) chimney was not very good and recommended a draft inducer. A draft inducer is a fan installed inside the exhaust pipe of a hot air furnace. The fan causes a draft which helps pull the exhaust fumes out of the living quarters and safely up and out of the chimney. I had one installed by the company I had a service contract with. Eventually when I got around to looking into it, I figured out that the draft inducer was hooked up to the power for the ground floor furnace. So the draft inducer only came one when the first floor furnace was on, not when the second floor furnace was on. Maybe that is okay, I don’t really know, but I wanted it to work with both furnaces so I did some research. Turns out I need to buy two new components; the main control box and a secondary controller for multiple units. These two units set me back over $300 just for the parts, so maybe the service company was just trying to save me some money by not installing them. They should have informed me that the draft inducer was only hooked up to one furnace and let me decide if I wanted to pay extra to have it controlled by both furnaces. A homeowner shouldn’t have to figure all this stuff out on their own, that is why they hire a professional. They also didn’t install a fan prover, but I didn’t do that either. Seems like overkill to me. I can hear when the draft inducer comes on and if I notice it not coming on, I can look into it. I like having the draft inducer come on for both furnaces now, even if it did cost me some more money and time.

Water System

My house has well water, so I have five tanks in the basement. Here is a picture. Water System This setup if fairly typical. You may have more or less tanks at your house, but if you have well water, you likely have at least some of these tanks. The big blue one is the pressure tank that holds the water pumped in from the well. I replaced that tank in late 2018 with the biggest one Amtrol makes. A bigger tank helps conserve the pump life because it cycles less often. The other three tanks are, from left to right, 1) the neutralizer, 2) the softener, and 3) the carbon filter. I have replaced the control valves on all three of the tanks with newer models that are more reliable. The old valves had many plastic gears that would eventually wear out and skip or stop rotating. The new valves use a simpler design that only has one metal gear. The new values also have digital displays, which provide more feedback on the unit. I have also replaced the media in all the tanks, so they are like new.

What got me starting working with the water system was that the salt in the brine tank (the short tank directly in the middle of the others) was not going down (not being used up). I read some old service invoices left behind from the previous owner and found that the water company noticed the same problem and their solution was to dump the salt, cleaned the brine tank, and refilled it with new salt. I tried that, but it still wasn’t consuming salt. I didn’t know what else to do, so I dumped it again, and this time I was more thorough and noticed that the copper valve at the bottom of the brine tank that controls siphoning the brine water back into the system was completely rusted off. Sorry, I don’t have a picture of that, but there was no way it could work. The solution was a $15 plastic version I bought at online at Softener Parts. This was my second DIY project at my current house and taught me that I need to rely on myself rather than technicians to solve my problems. I spent a good amount of time reading all the helpful information at the Softener Parts website and elsewhere on the web and made all the upgrades I mentioned earlier. It has taken some time to make all the upgrades, but I feel that the system is in very good condition now and should work for a long time.

Neutralizer

The first tank the water goes through after coming from the blue pressure tank is the neutralizer (white tank closest to the blue pressure tank). Most well water contains some iron and the neutralizer removes most of the iron, which also lowers the pH of the water. Water that is too acidic can eat at the insides of your copper pipes and eventually cause pinhole leaks, which will cause you to have to replace all your copper pipes. I am a big fan of DIY stuff, but I would never want to have to do that! If you ever get brown rings in your tub or toilet, or your clothes after washing them, you probably have too much iron in your water. You can find out for sure by taking a water sample to Leslie’s pool store and have them test it for iron. The neutralizer works by being filled with calcite, which is crushed marble. The calcite is consumed over time, so you will need to top it off once a year. If you look at the picture above, you will see there is a black access port on the front of the tank so you can put a funnel in these without having to remove the valve. This is for filling the tank. The fiberglass tanks are somewhat transparent and if you turn off the lights in the basement and shine a flashlight at the back of the tank you should be able to make out the level of the calcite. If it is below half way, so ahead and top it off to 34 full and then check it again in a year.

Softener

The second tank my water goes through is the water softener (middle tank next to the short brine tank). This one is pretty easy to identify if you have one because there are two tanks attached by a small diameter hose. The smaller tank is a brine tank that contains saltwater. You have to add softener salt to the brine tank whenever the salt level is below the water line. The softener will make the water less hard, which means soap will lather up better and the water will generally feel ‘softer’ on the skin. A softener is also advertised to make appliances last longer. There is not much maintenance needed here other than to keep salt in the brine tank.

Carbon Filter

The last tank my water goes through is the carbon filter (rightmost tank in the picture above). This tank is filled with ground coconut shells that filter for taste and sediment. This is not really essential, but does help produce better tasting (and sometimes smelling) water. It is recommended to occasionally dump out the old media and replace with new media, say once every five years.

Water Recirculating System

I actually saw this product at Costco of all places and decided to give it a try. Water Recirculator It has a built in timer and it forces hot water through your pipes at certain times of day. My master bath is about as far away from the water heater as is physically possible, so I can waste a lot of water waiting for it to feel hot enough to stand under on a cold winter morning. This recirculator, provided I take my showers at the right time of day, can give me almost instant hot water in the shower, without wasting any water. Now since I have well water I don’t realty have a water bill, but it is still a good idea to conserve water where possible.

Geothermal Water Heater

This is one of my favorite installs, a heat-pump water heater made in the USA by GE. GeoSpring Waterheater I don’t have natural gas running to my house so I have to use electricity to heat my water. Electricity is by far the least efficient way to heat water, so I was really interested in trying out this hybrid heat pump water heater. It has electric heating coils like a regular water heater, but it also has a heat pump attachment at the top that uses the ambient room temperature to heat up the water. A heat pump is commonly described as the opposite of an air conditioner. The water heater has many different modes, electric only, heat pump only, hybrid mode, and high demand mode. The water temperature coming from the well is about 50 degrees and the room temperature in my basement is always at least 65 degrees, so there is a 15 degree differential. By the magic of heat pump technology it is able to heat the water to 140 degrees even if I have it in heat pump only mode. In heat pump only mode you are using electricity to drive the compressor, but the electric heating coils are not being used, so it is pretty efficient. It came with a 10 year parts warranty and I bought the 10 year labor warranty because it was very inexpensive, so I can enjoy this water heater for the full 10 years. Unfortunately GE stopped making these water heaters. They weren’t as popular with everyone else I guess, but I think they are great.

Security System

I switched my home phone line to VoIP (Google Voice) pretty early on, but still had an AT&T land-line for my security system. I never used the land-line myself, but occasionally the security system would call out on it. I didn’t like paying for a landline just for the security system, but Internet monitoring didn’t see that mainstream yet. I spoke with my security provider and he put in a cell radio, which uses cell service to send signals to the central station. Unfortunately, he put in a 2G device and a few years later the cell provider wanted to stop providing 2G service. In November one year I got a call from my security company telling me that my radio had to be upgraded by the end of the year due to the phasing out of 2G cell service. I wasn’t all that happy with my Total Connect service so I checked online again to see what, if any, alternatives I had. Fortunately I found out about EyezOn, which sells a device that hooks your alarm up to your router using an Ethernet cable and allows for monitoring of your system over the internet. You can actually self monitor for free, or you can get central station monitoring for about $100 a year. The insurance discount more than pays for that, so it is like getting free security system monitoring. The EyezOn service comes with a nice website and app to configure and control my security system, but one of the things I like most it is the open source HoneyAlarm software by Matt Weineck that I run on my Raspberry Pi that allows me to control the system programmaticly. EyezOn also has an Alexa skill so I can control my alarm system via Alexa now.

So since I was spending money on my alarm system I decided to learn more about it and do some upgrades. I replaced all of my old displays that only showed the zone number with new alphanumeric displays that show the zone description. I replaced the smoke detectors with the new version that also monitors for low temp. I also figured out that I had six doors all on the same zone, so I bought an 8-zone expander and put each door in my house on its own zone, so I now know exactly which door is opened at any given.

Electrical System

One day my wife was cooking for a big dinner party and was using both ovens in our Kitchen Aid oven. I smelled a faint plastic smell, so I checked the basement and all the floors, but I couldn’t identify the source. A few minutes later the oven stopped working. I went downstairs to the breaker panel and the oven breaker was tripped. I tried to reset it, but it tripped immediately. Fortunately the food my wife was cooking was pretty much done, so I left the troubleshooting at that. The oven came with the house and was at least 20 years old, so I just ordered a new one. A week or so later when the new oven arrived I removed the old one from the wall and couldn’t believe what I saw. Junction Box The old oven was probably fine–the problem was with the incoming electrical wiring. The wiring from the breaker to the junction box was aluminum, as you can somewhat see in the picture below. The wires on the left, which went to the oven, are copper in color while the wires on the right are silver in color, which means they are aluminum. Aluminum Wiring mixed with Copper I had heard about the problems with aluminum wiring. Aluminum wiring became popular for a few years when copper prices were high, but since aluminum is less conductive than copper, it generates more resistance (hence heat) and can be dangerous when combined with other metals, such as copper. Eventually it was banned for all uses except mains wiring. The old oven even had a warning notice still attached to its wiring harness. Aluminum Warning I don’t know who installed that old over, but there is a good chance that that was the original oven that came with the house. If so, it would have been installed by a professional, who didn’t head the warning notice. Granted it lasted a long time, but this may have been the first time both ovens were in use at the same time.

In any case, the proper solution was to rip out the aluminum wire and run new copper wiring from the panel to the oven. I was lucky my kitchen is directly above my basement where the electrical panel is so that I was able to get to the wire and didn’t need a very long run. All in all, the circuit breaker did it’s job and shut off the electricity before a fire started and my wife got a new oven. All’s well that ends well.

Whole House Surge Protector

I didn’t even know these existed and I generally don’t hear much about them, but for around $110 you can buy a whole house surge protector that looks something like this. Surge Protector I live in a heavily wooded area and we loose power a fair amount. I have an automatic backup generator, but I assume the power that generates is ‘dirty’ compared to the line power. I can just image what the power spikes when the generator cranks up and down do to all the electronics in my house, so I bought this surge protector. It hooks up to both phases of the electrical power coming into your house, so you will need two unused breakers in your panel to install it. It provides some level of protection for everything plugged into your outlets. I have no idea if it is really working, but I am was willing to give it a try.

Flood Protection

I had gotten into the habit of turning off the water supply whenever I would go on vacation, especially in the winter time. One day my insurance agent was telling me about a flooding problem he had had and that he installed a FloLogic device to reduce the chance of that happening again. So I installed the FloLogic device and it worked well for about two years and the the control panel stopped working. The valve itself is built like a tank, but it is useless without a working control panel. I called the company and they wanted around $300 to replace the control panel. I was pretty sure that the panel was the problem, but what if I did buy a new control panel and it still didn’t work? While on their website I noticed that they now had an internet module you could buy for the device, which would be a big improvement over the non-internet connected version. I did some research on alternatives and found Flo by Moen. For less than the cost of the new panel and the internet module, I could buy the Flo device. My old FloLogic device uses a simple timer. If the water runs for more than 30 minutes (user programmable) it assumes there is a leak and shuts off the water. My new Flo device uses artificial intelligence to learn your usage patterns and turns off the water due to abnormal usage. It also shows the pressure and water temperature, which the FloLogic device did not do. Here is a picture of my Flo device installed. Flo by Moen. For comparison, here is a picture of my old FloLogic valve. FloLogic Like I said before, it is build like a tank and almost twice the size. Nevertheless, between the two I would definitely recommend the Flo device over FloLogic. The Flo device has more features and is less than one-third the price.

Waterbug

Since my old FloLogic device was not internet connected, I bought a cheap Waterbug and put the sensor on the floor between my water heater and pressure tank. ![Waterbug]{/img/Waterbug.jpg) The water bug is tied into my Honeywell Vista 20P security system so I will be notified whenever the sensor detects water on the ground and it would also shut off the water.

Homemade Automatic Water Shutoff

The Flo and Waterbug devices are nice, but since I am a big fan of overkill and extreme DIY, I built my own water shutoff device. The motivation here is that both FloLogic and Flo by Moen recommended that their devices be installed after the water filtration system. There are two reasons for this. The water filters backwash and regenerate during the night and that could interfere with the water flow sensor.^(Both companies also recommended a check valve before their device and anytime you install a check valve you also have to install an expansion tank.) The second reason is that the iron and sediment from the well water could cause problems for the water flow sensor, or at least decrease its lifespan. So it is better to install it after the water is conditioned and filtered. But what if I had a leak before the Flo device? My Waterbug sensor would sense the water on the ground and my alarm system would send me an email. Once I got that email I could open the Flo app and turn off the water, but what if I wasn’t looking at my phone at that moment. It would be nice to have an automatic solution. So I bought a [12V powered ball value]() off of Amazon and hooked it up to a [12V relay]() that is connected to the alarm system. Here is a picture. Homemade automatic water shutoff I just used double sided tape to attach the relay to the front of the ball value, powered it with a 12V power adapter and hooked the alram output to the normally open terminals on the relay. So the red LED is on in normal condition and when the Waterbug senses water it tells the security system and the security system closes the relay and the LED goes off and the ball valve closes. I can test it out easily by placing the water sensor in a cup of water. The ball value should close. When I take the sensor out of the water and dry it off the ball value should open back up. This addon was a lot of fun to make and cost less than $50.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a great learning device. You can learn about Linux, python programming, and electronics all at the same time. My wife got a small freezer for the basement and the door has really bad suction so if you close it too hard it will bounce back open. Many times I would come in the workroom and see the door open. So I decided to build a sensor for the door and send myself an email whenever it was open for more than a few minutes. Here is the simple magnetic sensor in place on the door. Fridge Magnet I had an extra alarm system box, so I put the Pi and relays in there to keep the wires secure and more tidy. Pi Relay Box

Once I had the fridge door magnet sensor working I wired up other hardware like a temperature and humidity sensor. I also added a carbon monoxide sensor to the Pi board. I don’t actually know if the carbon monoxide sensor is working properly because I have never had carbon monoxide in the basement to test it out, so it just always shows zero, but the temperature and humidity are fairly close to what other instruments show. I also ran wires to the garage door openers so I can open and close the garage doors via the Pi and I can also see if the garage doors are open or not from the alarm panel in my bedroom, which is good piece of mind. To round everything out, I wrote a flask app so I could control the Pi from my phone. Here is a picture of the app. Flask app I know what you are thinking, it is very boring and simple looking. I always thought I would get around to sprucing it up, but that’s the thing about home improvement projects, the first 90% is easy and the last 10% is really hard. Now that the flask app is functioning, its hard to go back to spend time on cosmetics. I spent the most time trying to make it resilient and reliable, trying to achieve that 99.9% up time is not easy.