Blog Soup 11/21/3013

Happy November and Happy Early Thanksgiving, everyone! I have a few moments and thought I would share a few thoughts and bits of news before I go tackle the huge pile of leaves in my front yard.


Since Facebook prematurely outed me (darn you, Facebook! ::shakes fist::), I’ll go ahead and share some house news. Once Jenny finishes school in May 2015, we are tentatively planning to move to Grand Prairie near Joe Pool Lake. There are two main reasons for the move:

  1. Family – We’ll live near my sister (currently 30+ minutes away) so our kids can go to school together. Instead of being 45 minutes from Jenny’s family, too far to see them very often, we’ll be 15 minutes away. It won’t put us too much farther from my parents and maternal grandparents, either.
  2. More Space – When we moved into our current house, we had nine-month-old Brenden and no Jonathan. Now that our family is complete and we have two very active boys, we’d like to have a bit more space, including a big game room upstairs where they can play, a study downstairs, and a media room where I can watch movies or play games late at night without worrying about waking anyone up. We can get a lot more house for the money in south Grand Prairie/Mansfield compared to the Mid-Cities.

With that plan in mind, we have been updating our current house to get it ready. I might share some more details in another post if that would interest you.

Things That Make Me Go Hmm

A few interesting observations:

  • I recently sent my ex-fiancee a babysitter recommendation. We are friends on Facebook, and when she posted a request for a good babysitter, I had one to offer. It was a bit odd, but it’s nice that we don’t hate each other despite the breakup.
  • A friend of mine got a bachelor’s from a private school, worked a bit, got a master’s in a really specialized field from another private school, and probably financed everything through student loans. Now she is married and staying home with her kids, but they are so strapped for cash that they’re selling every spare possession they can on Facebook to reduce their debt. I’m all for staying home with the kids if that’s what’s right for your family, but I don’t understand taking out massive loans for private colleges if you don’t plan to work.
  • Some people say you should rake and bag your leaves because they choke off your grass, blocking air, water, and nutrients from reaching your lawn. Others say you should mulch the leaves back into the soil. For years I’ve been mulching them, but I’ve had problems with thatch development. This year I’m going to compost the leaves instead of mulching them. Wish me luck. I need it!


As you probably figured, I am greatly enjoying the Bears’ football season. Jenny and I went to the Baylor-Oklahoma game in Waco earlier this month and had a blast. I’ve thought all along that our toughest test would come this Saturday in Stillwater, OK, against a tough Oklahoma State team. If we can win this, and Bama loses to Auburn or Mizzou, we have a chance at the national title game. That. Is. Crazy.


I held out high hopes for Obamacare despite my eventual decision to support Medicare for All instead. I defended it. I explained it to people. But now that the exchange website has experienced so many problems, and so many people are getting their policies canceled despite Obama’s foolish promises that “if you like your policy, you can keep your policy,” I have little appetite left for defending Obamacare. I love the new requirements – expanding coverage to the uninsured, no ban for preexisting conditions, keeping your children on your plan longer, coverage for contraception, etc. – but the overall scheme is too complicated to work well and isn’t going to draw in enough healthy young people to make it financially feasible. So in a sense, maybe the Republicans were right on many points. However, the answer isn’t going back to the old crappy system. The answer is expanding Medicare, a system that already works well for tens of millions of older Americans, to cover every single American, much like most other civilized countries do. But I fear that after the disaster of Obamacare, the country will have little appetite for further health care reform.

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.

Blog Soup April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day! Lots going on this month. Here are some of the random thoughts running through my head:

  1. WE HAVE SARAH MCLACHLAN TICKETS FOR TONIGHT. I think I can safely say she is my favorite musician. (See, Alex? I can do it!) Ten of her albums sit in my iPhone. Jenny and I saw her once several years ago, and it was truly a spiritual experience, like we were connecting to something Other and Beautiful and The Way Things Could Be. That time we were way up high at AAC. Tonight, I think we’re near the front at the Meyerson. Breathe, Box, breathe.
  2. Like many of you, I was horrified by the fertilizer plant explosion in West, which was so powerful that two coworkers heard it from their houses in Cedar Hill. I bought kolaches from The Czech Stop several times, and I passed through the little town dozens of times driving to and from Baylor. Jenny bought her wedding dress from a little shop there. On top of our personal experiences there, most of the dead were firefighters who were fighting the initial fire when the plant exploded, and one of my best friends growing up now works as a firefighter in Axle. If he’d been on duty in the area when the fire broke out, he probably wouldn’t be here today.
  3. Apparently our friends at Westboro Baptist Church plan to protest some of the firefighters’ funerals and a big memorial service at Baylor this week. When they tried that for a funeral of a former Aggie who was killed in combat, about 600 Aggies showed up and built a human wall to keep them away. A group near West is organizing something similar, and I might go join them for the Baylor memorial. They want it to be a silent, arm-in-arm stand to protect the families rather than a shouting match. That seems like a better approach to me.
  4. Congratulations to Jenny for getting accepted to UTA Nursing School! She has been taking prereqs for six semesters now, and she finally got the official word (as if there were ever any doubt!) that she can start full-time nursing school this fall. She worked really hard to get ready to apply and did extremely well in her classes, and I have no doubt she will rock that school. The program lasts four semesters, so she expects to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in May 2015. You better believe there will be a major graduation party.
  5. Due to sequestration, the FAA has imposed mandatory furlough days on the air traffic controllers, reducing the workforce on any given day by about 10 percent. As a result, SWA took some minor delays during the day on Sunday (a lighter than normal traffic day), but multi-hour delays yesterday evening into Los Angeles. One of my flights landed four hours late. For those who’ve been screaming for spending cuts and smaller government, was this what they had in mind? Probably not, but this is what’s happening, and it sucks.
  6. Something else that sucks is our yard! It turns out that ignoring your soil for four years, refusing to water or fertilize it, and hoping your grass won’t grow tends to produce poor soil that is more hospitable to weeds than to grass. So…I finally did something about it and bought some milorganite. It’s an organic fertilizer that adds nitrogen and lowers the soil’s pH a bit to make things less cozy for the weeds that form much of our yard. I’m trying hard to avoid poisons like Roundup and typical fertilizers that cause environmental problems (see West, TX for one example). This seems like a more effective and eco-friendly approach. We’ll how this organic stuff does.
  7. We’re also thinking about replacing the monkey grass out front with some different plants that like full shade. Texas Smartscape has a nice database of native plants that do well here without copious amounts of water.

A Better Deal on Green Power

We’ve been with Green Mountain Energy for about 3 years now. I’ve always been willing to pay a little more to support cleaner electricity, and the company employs good people. Thanks to Green Mountain’s success and the growing interest in green products, several power companies now sell 100 percent renewable electricity at rates lower than Green Mountain’s. So I switched.

I was paying 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is high but much less than I was paying a couple of years ago. On, I found a host of companies offering the same renewable electricity for under 9 cents/kwh. Yes, please.

TriEagle Energy won my business with a 12-month fixed-rate plan for renewable energy for 8.2 cents/kwh plus a $4.95/month service fee, making the effective rate for us about 8.6 cents. We’ll be saving about 25 percent over our current rate. I like the sound of that.

Wind Turbines for the Home

My eco-friendly mother-in-law sent me a very interesting article about residential wind turbines. One company, Urban Green Energy, even makes turbines you can mount on your roof. Here in Dallas, the average wind speed is about 10-11mph, so they would work. When they’re turning, your home uses the power they create. If you aren’t using all the generated power at the time, you can store it in a special battery or sell it back to the power company. Nice, eh?

Unfortunately, at current energy prices, the payback period for us would be prohibitively long. We pay about 11.5 cents/kWh, and the mid-level Urban Green Energy turbine (about $4900 after the tax credit) would generate about 1000kWh per year, saving us $115 annually. So I doubt we’ll install them anytime soon. But if the turbine prices come down and energy prices go up, we’ll certainly keep this solution in mind.