Category Archives: House maintenance


We have winterization in our lexicon, but not the springtime equivalent. Regardless, that’s how I spent part of my Saturday.

I had four more windows replaced a couple weeks ago (both bathrooms, guest room and upstairs hallway – the latter used to funnel cold air directly into my bedroom), so I had no storm windows to put away this year. Now, I’ve replaced all the windows in the living areas of the house. All that remain are the back hallway, basement and front porch, none of which are a huge priority.

Tulips! And daffodils!

I also cleaned out a winter’s worth of detritus from my flower beds and backyard. I filled an entire yard bag with dead leaves and other junk, and was thrilled to find stuff already sprouting underneath. In the front beds, I had seen tulips beginning to grow, but after removing the leaves, I found daffodil sprouts, too. Along the back fence, I found the early shoots that will become June’s tiger lilies.

Inside, I drained and cleaned the humidifiers, and now they’re air drying until I store them for the summer. I dusted and organized.

Still to do:

The missing piece was finally found in the backyard once the snow melted.

Fix the soffit that the blizzard tore off the side of the garage. Though it’s not very high, it requires a ladder, and thus I won’t tackle this quick fix unless I have someone spot me. Especially at the back of the house, I’m wary of doing anything where I could fall and no one would notice.

Close, but not quite latchable

Fix the frost heave/front gate situation. A couple years ago, a frost heave appeared in the middle of my driveway. As soon as the weather warmed, it collapsed back into itself, enabling me to seal it and move on. A couple weeks ago, when I first tried to close the gates, I couldn’t get the gate over the heave. Now, it’s collapsed, so I can close the gates, but they’re misaligned so they don’t meet in the middle and latch. I’m weighing my options: raise up the gates (oh-so-heavy and cumbersome; would require a second and potentially third set of hands) and install new hinges, sand off the bottom of the gate that currently rests on the ground, or just leave hope that the warm weather adjusts the driveway a bit more.

Put away the boots and clean, clean, clean. I’m afraid that putting away my winter boots right now might tempt fate, so I’ll hold off at least another week on this one. I also need to pull out the hose, turn on the water and get ready to plant.

And I can’t wait to drag the patio furniture out for the year.

What do you have to do for spring?


Humility, Thy Name is Level

Monday morning started off like most others: I grumbled at the alarm clock while thankful it was a work at home day, padded downstairs, made breakfast, started a load of laundry and settled in with coffee as I flipped through my work email.

An hour later, I remembered the laundry and went down to move it into the dryer. I discovered that everything was soaking wet. The water had drained out, but apparently, the spin cycle hadn’t really spun anything.

I fiddled with it and tried the spin cycle again. Nothing happened. And again. The motor was running fine, but the agitator wasn’t spinning. I started Googling and called my dad. We were able to guess it might be the belt – after all, there had to be a belt that somehow connects the motor to the agitator, right?

In the meantime, I wrung out, by hand, an entire load of mostly pajamas, sweats and other heavy clothes, squeezing nearly five gallons of icy cold water into a bucket.

Wednesday night, I tried to get the screws off the back of the panel to open up the machine and find the belt. I hoped the belt had merely slipped off and could be repositioned, or, barring that, had snapped and could be replaced. A couple of the screws were rusted on and stuck, so I called Dad again. He agreed to stop by today.

My parents came over this morning, tool box in tow. After figuring out the panel situation, we couldn’t find the belt, but upon investigation, we could see it at the bottom, beneath the basin. We tipped the machine back and saw the belt, perfectly intact, perfectly in place, and spinnable.

It looked like the dreaded repairman was in my future. Googling had said it could also be a pulley in the motor, or the sensors, neither of which we were prepared to fix.

But then we decided to do one more test run, just to see what happened. And after putting it back together and re-leveling it, the darn thing worked.

Apparently, all along, the problem was that it was grossly, egregiously out of level.

No floor in this house is level, and the basement is no exception. There’s a pretty good slope in the concrete, in part so that if water does get in, it flows down towards the floor drain. I’ve always adjusted for that with a small shim under one of the washer’s feet, but the shim had slipped and apparently, it was enough that the spin cycle wouldn’t spin.

I felt like an idiot for calling my dad all the way to Elgin to help, so he helped me hang a new spice rack I just finished painting. (It’s hard to judge appropriate height, mark the holes, etc alone.) But as he pointed out, at least I called him before a repairman. Then I really would have felt dumb, shelling out money so someone could tell me my floor’s not level.

Consider it a lesson learned.

108 Coats of Paint: Or, How I Spent My Autumn

Remember, way back in August, when I started the chore of scraping and painting the screens on the 11 windows that make up my enclosed front porch? I discovered that each window was caked with layers and layers of multi-colored paint that took major effort to remove.

When I removed the  screens, I discovered that the windows behind them were in terrible shape. After consulting with my dad, he agreed that the right thing to do was to scrape and paint the windows themselves. Upon further inspection, we also decided to reglaze all of the windows, as the ancient glazing (that holds the glass into the window) was dried out and crumbled to the touch.

Suddenly, my PITA project was a monstrous task. Fortunately, my wonderful, fantastic parents (with ample free time!) volunteered to help.

And help they did. Since August, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ve likely seen numerous references to painting and scraping, especially on sunny weekend days. I lost count of how many days they came down to Elgin to help, showing up early (for me on a weekend, anyway) and putting in a solid day of work. My dad and I would be working side by side on ladders in various stages of scraping, glazing and painting the windows themselves while my mom worked on the screens. She even mended some of the small rips and tears, using clear nail polish to further seal them.

Between their weekend help days, I did a ton of painting. Since we couldn’t get the screens down to bare wood, achieving a smooth, presentable final product required primer and three coats of paint – but at least they’re all the same color. Hence, I can’t even tally how many days I’d be outside, painting one coat at sun-up, then another coat over lunch, and another coat before sunset. (Multiply nine windows plus nine screens times (times two on the screens, for front and back) times four…. approximately 108 coats of paint? That doesn’t even factor in the paint trimming around the windows, the railings, or the front steps. I’ll take pictures when the sun is out.)

The front of the house now looks marvelous. Standing back from the street, the house looks crisp and clean and as new as a 120 year old house can. Even the freshly-painted house numbers look superb, and you can actually read them at night now.

I learned a few valuable lessons from this experience:

1) Start outdoor projects early. Since I work full time and go to school, my free time is limited. When you begin factoring in the need for a 24-hour rain-free period after each day of painting, it further complicates factors. (We were lucky to have a relatively dry fall, and I was able to stash the screens in the garage when rain threatened, which helped a lot.) In fall, suddenly you have to start worrying about temperature restrictions. For example, it has to remain at least 50 degrees and dry for 24 hours after glazing windows. The minimum for paint is 35 degrees. In October and November, this gets a lot tougher. Sunday morning, I watched the mercury climb for hours before I finally started on the final coat.

2) Stock beer. My parents rock, and really will work for beer. I always restocked my fridge before they came over (well, almost always) and it was appreciated.

3) Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Pick logical sections and prioritize them. Obviously, the front of the house was most important, so we did those first. When we finished the front 7, we moved on to the 2 windows facing the driveway – ie, the ones people actually see – and finished those this weekend. There are two left to do – on the least-visible side of the house. We ran out of good weather for the year, so we’ll tackle them in the spring, but from the street, the house looks great.

4) A Sharpie is just as useful as duct tape. Over the years, these screens have been painted many, many times, and it’s apparent that previous owners didn’t bother taping, so there are small splatters of multi-colored paint across the screens. When we re-installed the screens, the white splatters were especially noticeable, so my dad suggested we try a black Sharpie. It worked like a charm! I do wonder what they neighbors thought when I was out on a ladder coloring my screens with a marker…

5) Ask for help. It’s against my nature to ask for help, but I quickly realized the magnitude of this project and accepted my parents’ very generous offer of help. If I consider the total hours we spent working on this and then imagine doing it by myself… shudder. And it was good family time, too, as we usually had dinner together after finishing work for the day. I am so, so lucky that they were willing – and eager – to help. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.

That’s it for the outdoor projects this year – just in time for winter. Now I move indoors, with a focus on reorganization and gutting my bathroom. After Finals, of course.

Super Sunday

I had a really good Sunday. For the first time in weeks it wasn’t raining (nor was the ground freshly soaked) and after a week being stuck inside with a cold, I was craving some fresh air.

After experimenting and making apple cider pancakes for breakfast, I planted about 75 bulbs that I had bought on clearance at Meijer. They’re a mix of purple tulips, striped tulips and stock generic multi-color surprise tulips, and a handful of crocuses. I basically put them in bags by their height, dug all the requisite holes, then plopped them in at random. Can’t wait to see what sprouts – or doesn’t. Though I’ve learned my lesson about proper coverage to avoid feeding the squirrels.
Next, I whipped up some hydraulic cement (eerily similar to whipping up pancakes, only the directions do call for a mask and eye protection) and fixed a couple of the small cracks where the AC slab meets the foundation. This is exactly where we’ve had the minor basement leaking problem (much better lately), so a bit of extra sealant can’t hurt. And this time, I didn’t give myself chemical burns!
Then, while gingerly carrying my cement materials back to the garage, I spied a small, hairline crack beginning elsewhere in the foundation. I was able to scrape enough cement out of my bucket (though it was hardening rapidly) to patch it thoroughly. Preventative maintenance!
I ended my day by spending approximately 3 hours raking, raking, raking all the leaves that fell on a very blustery Friday. I realized I wasn’t going to get them all, so I settled for “good enough” as I raked after the 5 PM sunset.
It was a really productive day. I needed a day like this.

The Year Without a Garden

I tried, I really did. This year I planned to be even more adventurous with the garden – I was going to grow everything from seed! No more “cheating” seedlings for me, no sir.

I started off okay. I planted dozens of seeds into seed trays. Some of them took right away – I’m looking at you, nasturtiums – but others, not so much. I got a couple marigolds to sprout, and the lettuce took off nicely. But few of my brave little seedlings survived the transplanting, nor the neglect. I tried to make a deal with Mother Nature to water my new plants, but she had other ideas.

The smaller bed has done pretty well – apparently nasturtiums thrive under neglect, and one random bachelor button reappeared from last year. (Not a fan, especially when it’s one chalky green stem towering over the lily pad-style nasturtiums.) But the big bed looks pretty bare, and would look even worse if not for the lily that keeps multiplying. (The first summer in this house, it didn’t exist. The next summer, it was a single shoot. By this summer, it’s starting to take over. I have no clue where it came from. But I’ll take it!) A couple brave marigolds survived the transplant, but for the first time, it’s a year without zinnias. I’ve had luck with the zinnias before – my first summer, I planted seedlings and they thrived. Last year, I actually grew a bunch from seeds planted straight in the ground. But this year, after carefully selecting a wide variety and starting some in trays and others directly in the dirt, none of them took.

I think I’ll blame the weather.

Stadium Lights

We’re gradually making energy-saving adjustments to our old, old house. The new windows have helped our energy efficiency (and comfort!) tremendously. But for the most part, the changes we make have been, well, free. Or taxpayer-funded.

The city has been giving out those snazzy CFL bulbs at nearly every city-sponsored event I’ve been to in the past year, from picnics to lectures. And if you happen to be present towards the end of the event, organizers tend to hand them out in pairs or triples, rather than packing them back up. Which leads me to believe that the city knocked off a truckload of bulbs bound for Chicago. After all, every single individually packaged bulb (how’s that for green?) is printed with the seal of the City of Chicago and the Richard M. Daley, Mayor insignia. Sometimes they have a “City of Elgin” sticker slapped over the top, but not always.

Anyway, like good citizens we’ve been installing the new CFLs as the old incandescent bulbs burn out. We were even proactive and bought (ie, overpaid for) bulbs for the front porch lights two years ago, since they’re the longest running lights in the house. (Though it should be noted that the first ones last a mere six days – apparently brownouts burn the bulbs, literally browning them. But the second pair bought the next week is on its third summer, running every night from sunset until 2 AM.)

We haven’t noticed a huge difference in the energy bills, but (mercury concerns aside) we’ve been pretty diligent. However, the quality of the light is very different than that from incandescent bulbs. This isn’t an issue outside, where more light better illuminated the drug deals that used to happen across the way, and the security lights from HALF A MILE ACROSS THE RIVER blare into our bedroom at night.

But in the living room, with first one, then two and now four CFLs spotlighting the couch from the overhead fixture, we’re just about to buy some more incandescent bulbs. They’re so bright – Don has compared them to stadium lights – that they prevent relaxing (read: napping). I’ve found Don stretched out on the couch watching tv with his hand shading his eyes from the glare.

So we’re not going green for the sake of being green. Rather, a little bit of common sense must prevail. Though we’ll continue to collect the bulbs at city events – I wonder if there’s an aftermarket.

Into the Void

Another irrational fear is the gaping holes under my floor vents. One of the joys of an old house is the giant (one square foot or even larger!) vents on floors throughout the house. The cat loves them – especially in winter – and will puff herself up and stretch out to cover absorb as much of the air as possible.

But I’m always afraid of the gaping canyon beneath the pretty, heavy iron grate coverings, especially in the upstairs bathroom. Last weekend, while vacuuming out the vents (a twice yearly chore), I had my usual qualms about what lies beneath. I’m assuming it goes straight down two stories to the furnace in the basement, with nothing to stop the freefall. I’ve dropped the occasional thing into the hole – an aspirin, a q-tip – but what if I dropped something important? Could I ever get it back? Has a previous resident ever dropped something?

With a deathgrip on my phone, I took a picture of the abyss. Do they make a wrist strap for cell phones?

Either way, I’m glad I cleaned out all the dust (and accumulated cat fur) – and I’m breathing easier.


Whoever invented cheap white laminate cabinets never actually cooked or used them for their intended purposes. Or he wore gloves at all times.

They show fingerprints so damn quickly, and get dirty around the corners just from daily use. We won’t even realize we spilled something until a long, streaky, greasy stain appears and won’t.go.away.

Plus, the cheap laminate chips away.

I’ve only been in this house three years and am pretty gentle with my cabinets – heck, we don’t have kids – and they look worse for the wear. I can’t IMAGINE what kids would do to them.

And don’t get me started on the cheap handles. We’ve bought a least a dozen tubes of superglue just to replace the ugly ceramic “decorations.”


I have a relatively active imagination, so I’ve spent every night for the past week wondering why there are now snakes living in my toilet tank. At least, that’s what it sounds like. And what goes through my mind as I’m showering. Or trying to fall asleep.

The hissing started about a week ago, right after the city installed our new water meter. I’ve lifted the lid and there’s no signs of leaking or continuously running water. Everything works fine.

It just hisses, constantly and quietly.

Should I be concerned, or only if it starts gurgling?

A Geyser & A Burn

One night last month, during a heavy storm, I unlocked the back door and heard an unusual sound.

The basement was gurgling.

Rather, the wall in the basement had sprung a leak and water was flowing all the way across the sloped basement floor to the drain, which was fighting to keep up, and failing.

I changed into grubby clothes and set off to plug the leak, which was the size of a pencil eraser, and was acting like a geyser or fountain. It looked a lot like a kid turning their mouth into a water fountain.

Unfortunately, everything I had onhand that might fix the problem was water soluble and couldn’t set up against running water – caulk, spackle, grout, liquid nails. It was too late to go out to a hardware store, so I tried the one thing I thought might actually work.

Duct tape.

I balled up some duct tape and shoved it into the leak, then created a patch over the top. The gushing slowed to a trickled, enough that I was able to squeegee out the basement and survive the storm.

The next weekend, after researching solutions, I bought Drylock Fast Plug as a first step to fix the problem. That entire wall has been seeping for awhile, and in addition to the one geyser, there are several smaller holes not so visible to the naked eye. My research and the shockingly helpful Orange Apron I talked to concurred that patching with Fast Plug, followed by a solid coat of Drylock Waterproofer, should do the trick.

I carefully followed the directions and made sure to ventilate the basement and don a mask, gloves and goggles. I mixed up a small amount to get the texture right, then applied the concrete to the main hole, then several other spots I had noticed and marked. It was kind of fun, almost like finger painting. Emboldened by my success, I mixed up more and patched the entire joint, where floor meets wall. I decided I had done enough for the evening and packed up and went off to take a shower.

An hour later, my face was a red, peeling mess that burned hot to the touch. When Don got home from work, he took one look and asked what had happened.

Despite all my precautions, I had brushed hair off my face with the back of my gloves, likely leaving some Drylock dust on my cheeks. When I hopped in the shower, the water must have activated the powder. A quick Google confirmed my self-diagnosis – I had minor chemical burns all over my cheeks and forehead.

After some burning, itching and a very uncomfortable night, they started to disappear about twenty-four hours later. But next time, I’ll use a hair tie.