Blog Soup 9/26/2013

Hi! Things are a bit crazy in my house these days. I’m temporarily awake and free to blog, so here is an update on us.

  1. Except for me, my entire family is now in school full-time. Jenny has class all day Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and also goes in sometimes on Thursday or Friday. Brenden is in kindergarten five days a week from 7:45-2:45. Jonathan is in preschool five days a week as well. I’m still trying to convince the boys that I really have spent many, many years in school and don’t need to go anymore.
  2. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are a bit tough for me. I get off work at 6:00, come home to help get the boys ready, take them to school, and crawl into bed around 8:15-8:30am. Then I get up at 2:00pm and pick them up. Plus Monday nights the boys have swim lessons at 5:45 and 6:45 in Southlake. So I’m usually pretty tired the first half of the week, not to mention the rest of the family.
  3. Jenny is probably studying more than she has in her entire school career. The material isn’t difficult for her, but the volume is staggering – tons of reading, video modules, and skills training. Despite the workload, she is keeping up and doing great. Starting in two weeks, she’ll be at Baylor Grapevine once a week working with real patients on a limited basis.
  4. I am embarrassed that Ted Cruz represents my state in the US Senate. If you’re not sure why, this editorial should help.
  5. The polls don’t show it since we haven’t played any tough opponents yet, but my Baylor Bears are one of the best teams in college football this year. They have a real shot at the Big 12 championship and a BCS bowl. Yes, it does feel a bit insane to write such things, but our defense is finally catching up to our ridiculous offense, and that should scare every team we’ll face this season. In our three games so far, our defense has scored more touchdowns (4) than it has allowed (3). We have tickets for the Oklahoma game Nov 7, our first real test of the season.
  6. I really want a media room / man cave with a nice projector, comfy seats, a wet bar, and soundproofed walls. You know, something like this. Since our current living room is open to the upstairs hallway where the bedrooms are and directly under our bedroom, my subwoofer doesn’t get much use when I have some downtime to watch movies or play games. Someday!
  7. Brenden is selling chocolate for his school’s PTA. I loathe cheesy fundraisers like this and would happily write the organization a big check rather than guilt-trip my family and friends and neighbors into buying overpriced junk they don’t want. I actually planned to refuse to participate. However, I forgot one crucial element: the fundraiser people give the kids incentives to sell. Brenden came home with his box of candy bars determined to sell two boxes so he could get get to play in the Game Truck (r) when it comes to his school. So guess what? I’m selling chocolate on his behalf. 🙂 To their credit, the chocolate company has improved its recipe, and the chocolate is now quite good.
  8. I did not sign up for the international desk at work next year. The international flights are interesting and the workload is light, but since you need a special qualification to work the desk, it’s difficult to trade an international shift away if needed. Since Jenny will have EARLY morning clinicals two days a week next year, I need to keep my trading flexibility. I might try it again in 2015 if I think we can make it work.
  9. Once we have the cash, I’d like to replace the Grand Caravan with a Mazda5 and the Fit with a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt. However, right now we’re saving up for other things, so we’ll try to squeeze a few more years from our current vehicles.
  10. The boys now have passports! I’m not sure when we’ll use them yet, but they are ready. We might do an awesome cruise after Jenny finishes school in May 2015. Once the Wright Amendment restrictions are loosened in October 2014, flying to cruise ports from Dallas on SWA will become much easier.

Farewell to the Solar Water Heater

I call that getting swindled and pimped
I call that getting tricked by business. – Macklemore


It seemed like a good idea at the time.

As some of you will recall, in 2010 we had a solar water heater installed. Thanks to the federal tax credit and a rebate from the electric company, we only had to pay about 1/3 of the total cost, and we hoped to save $30-50/month on our electric bill by using the sun to heat our water. Green? Check. Interesting and unusual? Check. Cost-effective? Probably. I pegged our break-even point at 3-5 years, much better than the 20-year break-even point for solar electrical panels.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

For a couple of years, the system worked great in summer, okay in spring and fall, and hardly at all in winter due to changes in roof temperature. That aspect wasn’t a surprise as the system only works when the roof is warmer than the water in the tank. However, I never noticed any significant drop in our electric usage. With so much variability in weather conditions and hot water usage, it would be very difficult to measure exactly how much the solar water heater was saving. However, I expected to see some difference, especially in summer when it heated the water so well.

In 2012, after two years in service, the system stopped heating water as well as it had before. The pump still ran water up to the heating panels on the roof and back, but the water temperature rose much more slowly than it should have. So I had to call the installer back out. He cleaned out one of the filters or something like that, and afterward it worked great for about a year. Fortunately, he didn’t charge for the visit other than a small fee for a failed part. I must add that the failed part was a tube that leaked water into our bedroom closet, which was more than a bit annoying.

Finally, this summer, the pump quit working correctly. Instead of pumping water up to the roof, it merely vibrated and made weird and loud noises, loud enough for me to hear from our bedroom. The installer, along with every other North Texas company who installed the Fafco Sungrabber system, had gone out of business. The one company I could find who still serviced these systems in the area was difficult to work with and not very responsive. But they finally delivered the final straw of bad news: the replacement pump was nearly $700.

I was done. “Come take this thing out,” I told them.

On Wednesday of last week, about a week after I nearly flooded my house by trying to do it myself (always know where to find the key to turn off your water in case of emergencies, people!!), the crew came out and removed my much-hyped solar water heater. Considering how much I paid to have it installed ($1500) and then removed ($250), I am quite sure that I never earned my money back despite my high hopes at the time. My intentions were good. I think the installers did a decent job. But it seems that the technology just didn’t work that well. The boss at the removal company said he refused to install the Fafco system in homes I had because it was “crap.”

Now we are back to having a normal, boring, non-eco-friendly water heater. It isn’t the most efficient, but it works. When we sell this house someday, we won’t need to explain that we’ve got this weird solar thing and describe how to use it, nor will we need to scramble to find someone who can repair it. That’s one less thing to worry about.

The 80s Called. They Want Their Toilets Back.

The final straw came when Brenden rushed into the kitchen, a panicked look on his face, to tell me the toilet was overflowing. I praised him for telling us so quickly, cleaned up the mess, and decided it was time to complete a project I’d wanted to do ever since we moved in four years ago: replacing our original 1983 toilets with modern ones.

The old ones were pretty, um, crappy. They didn’t flush all that well and occasionally stopped up or even overflowed, as Brenden learned the hard way. I’m still surprised that the boys hadn’t plugged one up by trying to flush something weird like a Hot Wheels car or action figure.

The other problem was high water use. These used 3.5 gallons per flush, the standard in the mid-80s, whereas modern toilets flush just as well or better with as little as 1.28 gallons. With our ongoing water shortage in Texas likely to get worse in the future, I didn’t feel very responsible keeping these water-guzzlers in service. With all four of us now using the toilet several times a day (thanks, Jonathan!), replacing all three toilets would save 10,000-20,000 gallons of water per year. That’s equivalent to a backyard swimming pool.

I already had my toilet picked out: the Penguin high-efficiency at Lowe’s. I liked the Penguin because it combined great flush performance with a unique feature: overflow protection. Look back in the picture at the top of this post. See the three holes in the back of the bowl? They keep the toilet from overflowing, just like the weird hole in your bathroom sink. And if those holes get plugged up somehow, hidden backup holes can handle it. I still haven’t figure out why no one tried this a long time ago.

There are some other eco-friendly toilets like this Kohler model that offer dual-mode flushing, meaning more water for solids and less water for liquids. It’s a neat idea, but with two boys in the house who might decide to experiment with flushing Batman or Lightning McQueen, I thought the overflow protection was more important.

I wasn’t impressed with the subcontracted installer (Dr. Plumber, who did good work yesterday but showed up 2 hours late and wasn’t good about communicating), but so far I love the new toilets. They are quiet, attractive, flush and refill within maybe 15 seconds versus 45-60 for the old ones, and seem to do a great job. I haven’t gotten to test them too, um, extensively, but based on the reviews I’ve read, the Penguins can handle pretty much anything you throw at them.

Backyard 2.0

Although we’ve lived in our house for nearly four years, we haven’t spent much time relaxing in the backyard because we didn’t have any real patio furniture. That was one of those projects that was always on The List but never made it to the top. Last month, I found a table and chair set at Lowe’s that would work great and was much less expensive than the ones I’d been considering. So I jumped on it.

To give it some shade, I found a huge (11-foot!) patio umbrella at Finally, I picked up a big deck storage box to hold all the boys’ toys, a much better solution than the old method of leaving them loose in the backyard. We’re already enjoying our new backyard and had dinner on the patio Friday night. There’s something about being outside that makes me feel more alive and more connected to the world.

We have some other plans under consideration for down the road, such as a true cover for the porch, expanding and tiling the porch, removing the treehouse, replacing the old fences, and adding some landscaping. However, just adding the table and chairs is a huge improvement. Here are a few pictures:

The final product

The boys with the new table.

Us enjoying dinner before the umbrella arrived.

Blog Soup 1/26/2013

Welcome to the first Blog Soup of the new year!

  • I’m on shift 12 of 14 in a row at work. Don’t feel too bad for me, though. I did it to myself. We normally work six shifts in a row followed by a three-day or six-day break. I picked up a trade and a couple of overtime days last weekend, which is why I’m on such a long stretch. It also includes five shifts training a new guy. I am looking forward to some time off next week.
  • Next Thursday I’ll hit my nine-year anniversary in Dispatch. Before I know it, I’ll be having a retirement party and taking my grandchildren to Disney World.
  • I’ve been working on our spring season race calendar. Right now I only have two big events planned, but I might add some smaller events in between. First up is a return to the Cowtown half marathon on Feb 24. As you might recall, Cowtown was my first half marathon last February. I barely missed my goal of finishing under two hours. After a more leisurely and fun half at Disney World earlier this month, I am training hard to break 2:00 next month. I know my body is capable of it. The only question is whether everything will come together to make it happen that day.
  • Our other event is a 100K bike rally near our first house, the Cross Timbers Classic Bike Rally. It starts with a lap on the track at Texas Motor Speedway in north Fort Worth and does a loop through the surrounding area. Jenny and I both signed up for the 100K ride (62 miles). So far our longest ride was 50 miles at Hotter’N Hell back in August, so this one will be a new challenge.
  • I used some Amazon gift cards to get a cool new toy, an iHome rechargeable speaker dock for my iPhone. Why is that cool, you ask? It lets me carry the speaker to any room in the house and listen to my music or Pandora. I’ll mainly use it for listening during a soak in the bathtub (no outlets in the bathtub room) or in the kitchen while hanging out with the kids. It’s maybe a foot wide and has a built-in dock for my iPhone or iPad. For such a small unit, the sound is surprisingly good.
  • Aussie tennis star Samantha Stosur has better arms than I do.
  • I was thrilled by the deep run that young American Sloane Stephens enjoyed at this year’s Australian Open, especially her huge win over Serena Williams. Stephens is developing into a phenomenal player and also seems like a very warm and good-natured person. If she can stay healthy and handle all the pressure, she seems poised to take over as queen of American women’s tennis.
  • I don’t really understand the drama over gun control. The pro-gun people are all worked up because they think the government is trying to take all their guns, which is untrue. The anti-gun people think that tighter gun control laws will keep us safe, which is also untrue. Based on what little I’ve read, the measures being proposed would not have stopped most of the mass shootings from the last 10-20 years. Even if these new measures pass, I doubt they will have much impact. The only way to completely eliminate gun violence in America is to wave a magic wand and make all guns worldwide disappear. Even I don’t think that’s a good idea, even if it were possible.
  • An acquaintance of mine decided to take out $50,000 in student loans to get a master’s in film from a private school in California. Now she can’t find a job but owes nearly $700/month in student loan payments. She set up a crowdfunding site to raise money to pay her loan. Part of me wants to help, but the other part thinks she was unwise to borrow that kind of money to pursue a degree with such questionable marketability. Just thinking that makes me feel old.
  • Screw my man card. I wish I had Lady Gaga tickets for Tuesday.
  • Jonathan had his three-year-old checkup this week. He was very healthy as expected. He measured 90th percentile for both weight (37 lbs) and height (39.5 inches). His language and motor skills are normal. We’re working hard on potty training this weekend. It still amazes me to watch these two grow up.

Refi Complete

This week, we added another life achievement that makes me feel old: refinancing our mortgage. We started thinking about it several weeks ago, as I discussed here, and finally closed on Tuesday. Here are the details for those who are interested.

Early on, I requested information from a couple of lenders online and never heard from them, which didn’t bode well for their responsiveness if I’d actually applied with them. So I moved on. I applied online first with a mortgage officer recommended by our realtor. The site walked me through a detailed application process that took some time. Then I waited. And waited. Long story short, the loan officer was so busy with mortgages for new purchases that she had to put refis on the back burner. Each time I contacted her, she didn’t respond for a couple of days.

So I moved on again to another loan officer, Marla Butler at Guild Mortgage in McKinney. My buddies from work highly recommended her and said she was very quick to respond. They were absolutely right. Except for one phone call I made to her right before getting the cashier’s check for closing, we communicated only by email, and she always wrote me back within a few hours or the next morning if I sent her a question. She was great to work with.

We started the whole process with Guild about a month ago, applying online and then faxing in our documentation. Overall, the process went smoothly, with only minor issues regarding my legal name (everyone wants to leave off the Jr.) and getting the correct numbers and financial statements where they needed to be.

As planned, we switched to a 15-year mortgage and got an interest rate of 3.125 percent, a big improvement over our 30-year mortgage at 4.375. If we take the full 15 years to pay off the new one, we’ll save over $70,000 in interest compared to the old mortgage. Our payment only increased by $175/month despite the shorter term. Closing costs totaled about $4400, so I figure this was one of the better investments I’ve made. I saw lower closing costs elsewhere, including the first loan officer I contacted, but Marla was so great to work with that I was willing to pay a little more to get the deal done quickly and efficiently.

One thing that still seems odd to me is the way underwriters look at financial data. They base their decisions on periodic financial statements and values like a financial accountant, which means their numbers could be several days or even a few weeks out of date. I, on the other hand, use and my various financial websites to track my positions in nearly real time. Both perspectives have merit, but it’s helpful to be aware of the difference when applying.

The biggest hiccup, if you can call it that, was the appraisal. To avoid PMI, we needed the house to appraise for several thousand dollars more than we paid for it. Based on the improvements we’ve made and the current listings in our neighborhood, I expected a high value. Instead, the appraiser valued our house at $3000 less than we paid for it. As a result, we had to pay down our original mortgage significantly at closing. We were hoping to use those funds for other purposes, but it was money we would have to pay at some point regardless, so we benefited regardless.

I hope this helps. Comment or write me privately if you have any questions.