Monthly Archives: April 2009

Starving crazy food lady wannabe

This post is an update on my “riot for austerity” attempts to eat locally. If I had to eat locally right now, I would be starving (due to lack of preparation).

I am buying cream, eggs, cheese and milk from the valley (~40 miles away or so). We got a gallon of cream, a gallon of whole milk, and a pound of cheddar cheese a couple of weeks ago and we are about done with all of it. I gave away a quart of cream, and we made butter with a pint of it. I have been eating some local potatoes. I have local honey. But we have also been eating a lot of pad thai, indian food, cereal, bread, maple sugar, etc from far away. I am all through all my canned and frozen veggies and salmon, and there is not a green, growing thing to be found yet (not even any dandelion greens). So, maybe 30% local, 15% dry/bulk and the rest wet/non-local? Generously…? And because I am not eating my veggies!

Earthday everyday

Uninspiringly, I’m really not doing much for Earthday. I gotta work, I gotta go to my classes, I have a playdate with my son this eve in the park. I don’t even really know of anything spiffy going on in town. I probably won’t find time to call my congressperson to request they support the climate bill (although I could do that instead of type this if I wasn’t so afraid of the phone). However, I will do the things I do everyday anyway – I will walk to work, take the bus to university, bike to the park. I will compost and recycle everything I consume today that can be so disposed of. I will be conscious of my resource use to the point of obsession. Not so bad, when done consistently throughout the year. I’ll let you know when I do something more exciting for the earth – it may be late, but it’ll be good!

A break from bathrooms: Unit 1 eco-makeover

Work has slowed a bit on our unit’s bath since we don’t have the pressure of not having a toilet anymore – still progress is being made, and I will post a picture of the final deal when the grout is laid and trim is in place.

Also, in the week that the other efficiency didn’t have a tenant I made some improvements to that unit. Every light in the place had been incandescent, so I replaced them all with CFLs, saving at least 2/3 of the previous energy use for those lights. I ordered a new energy star fridge, to be delivered tomorrow, that uses 1/3 the energy of the old with about 1.5 times the space. I bought and installed a low-flow 1.5 gpm shower head to replace the old, not too low-flow, one. I painted (with ReStore paint) a wall in the bathroom that was in need – a buddha warm reddish color that looks beautiful – wish I’d remembered to take a picture – the new tenant likes it too.

Mainly, though, I discovered my old tenant was leaving the window open because the heat was sticking on! Wish I’d known. So I had the heating guy come out and replace the zone valves for both efficiency units (ours also seemed sticky sometimes) and successfully put on my new programmable thermostats that had been not working before. Unfortunately, the guy was pretty slow and bad at troubleshooting and I feel he used way too much time, so I am disputing some of the $570 worth of labor, we’ll see how that goes. But the heat turns off, the units aren’t as oven-like as before (we had our heat off, but the heat pipe to next door came up in our bathroom near the shared wall and affected us all!), and the programmable thermostats allow for easy night and unoccupied set-backs.

As I may have mentioned before, the breakdown I have heard is that 1/3 of energy savings/ CO2 emission reductions can come easily from modified behavior. 1/3 can come from techno-fixes that are economically justified and pay you back. The last 1/3 is the tricky bit, that generally involves some non-economic, non-easy solution. Hopefully, with my new, intentional tenant and the above modifications, this efficiency will start to use between 1/3 and 2/3 less energy.

Bathroom III: We don’t poop in a bucket!!

dscn0081 On Friday evening we started laying tile! I was a bit nervous to cut the tile, so I laid an ‘L’ of whole tiles, and then called it quits for the night. Saturday morning I was brave enough to try a cut, and the tile saw my friend lent me worked beautifully and easily! Gil cut the rest, including the tricky round hole to fit around the toilet drain, while I laid them. We spent the rest of the day having fun, letting thinset set, and cleaning up the other efficiency in prep for the tenant to move in. In the evening I painted the wall behind the toilet.

I already knew the new toilet was going to be a tight fit. The distance from the wall to the closet drain was one inch less than the instructions said it needed to be, but my measurements showed it within a half inch of ok. On Sunday morning, with my tenant moving in next door and the thinset solid under the tiles I ‘grouted’ the tile directly under where the toilet would go with silicon (since I had no time for my grout to set up and be sealed – we needed a toilet pronto), and half an hour later came the moment of truth! It was tight, but it just barely fit! We made one quick trip to Lowes for longer closet bolts. Then we used 2 wax rings, since the flange was now at the base of the new tile. The wax ring with the rubber flange-thing in it we stuck in the closet drain, the plain wax ring we put around the drain at the bottom of the toilet. It took some pressing and tightening to get it not to wiggle, but in the end, solid and leak free!! I had forgotten to plumbers-putty the bottom rim of the toilet, so after pouring enough water in the bowl to verify leak free flushing, we pushed a bead of plumbers putty under the base as far as it would go, and then silicone caulked it. At the advice of a good friend, we left a gap in the back unputtied and uncaulked so that if leaks developed in the future, we would be able to see them. All that was left was to hook up the water and inaugurate the toilet!

After this we fit the blocking between the studs for the sink to bolt to and patched the wall. Yesterday (Monday) we spackled and painted the patch. I didn’t do a great job with the spackling, it is pretty bumpy, but most of it will be hidden by the sink. I may have to smooth out the parts that show – I got careless with the desire to be done.

Some notes: the Italian porcelain tile, grout, paint, and sink were from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore (about $35 for all – used or donated left-overs). The rest of the supplies were from Lowes, about $550 or so worth. The toilet was the single greatest expense, at $270. I wanted to get a low-flush one from the ReStore, but they didn’t have any when I was serious about it, and I feared the ones I had seen there were first-gen low-flushes that didn’t flush well. The one I splurged on is lovely. It is one piece, so dirt doesn’t hide where the tank meets. It uses 1.4 gallons per flush, and flushes beautifully. And, of course, the tank takes up much less space than the old one, making the bathroom seem more spacious. I have to admit that my reasons for purchasing a new toilet bordered on the aesthetic, but there is at least a flimsy bit of ecological reasoning to underpin it!

Bathroom II:razor blades and cedar

dscn0057 Here is a picture of my new underlayment (not complete yet so you can see the layers). Last Wednesday we finished removing our damaged underlayment, cleaned it all up, and screwed on 1/4″ exterior glue luan through the floor boards into the joists. This was to give a fairly smoothed-out surface to start with, instead of the cupped floor boards with big gaps between them. On Thursday, we thin-setted and screwed on a 1/2″ layer of backerboard – this kind was fiberglass-faced gypsum. Already the floor was much leveler and sturdier. On Friday morning I primed the surface for self-leveling compound, and I poured the compound at noon. It mostly filled in a low back corner, but the non-level bits left were pretty minor. Now I was pretty much ready for tiling.

We had taken out the medicine cabinet and cut a hole in the wall to put in bracing to hang the wall mounted sink on. The most interesting surprises here were a wall cavity full of thin razor blades and wall studs that, I believe from the unmistakable smell, are cedar!? We were trying to figure out the razor blades when someone told us that in the old days, people used to dispose of their old razor blades through the slit in the back of the medicine cabinet, using the wall cavity as a dump! The cedar in the wall is a mystery too – did they have some lying around and used it in the wall? Did they purchase cedar since it was a wet, bathroom environment? Surely my whole house isn’t framed in cedar, but I’m not sure I’d mind if it was!
So, at this point it’s Friday, my new tenant moves in on Sunday (meaning we can’t use that apartment’s bathroom anymore), and I haven’t even tiled yet, much less installed the toilet…do we make it? Tune in next time to see! (yes, I’m writing this the next Monday – so I am withholding information.)

Bathroom before


Really this picture is “Bathroom During”. What you don’t see here is the hideous cracked sink, the rickety damaged vanity, the huge poor-flushing old toilet, the ratty smelly carpet, the warped, moldy plywood, the ancient crumbly linoleum tile, the delaminated OSB, or the moldy roofing paper. What you do see are the cupped, gapped 3/4 inch floor boards on top of the 16-inch on center joists. The boards are wet-rotted about 1/4-inch deep on a small patch near the toilet. As they were going to be murder to remove, they were sealed and hardened with a product from elmers that I am pretty sure is just elmers glue, with a price markup. It did the job beautifully though. We started this part of the bathroom repairs on Saturday, since we weren’t going to have a tenant across the hall until this coming Sunday, giving us a week to work while being able to use the toilet in the other efficiency bathroom, and store supplies in the other apartment. Saturday I removed the old carpet and the vanity. Monday after work we bought supplies and removed the toilet and plywood. We also removed the medicine cabinet and cut a hole in the wall for the 2×8 we will put between the wall studs to hold the wall mounted sink. Tuesday we bought more supplies and removed the rest of the floor down to the floor boards. That’s it for the demo! Unfortunately, I had a bad cold while doing all this, which meant that inhaling all the dust and mold was even more torture (I can’t breath and my glasses fog up in a dust mask. I know. I know. But I don’t do this for a living – I’ll be ok). But you gotta strike while the iron is hot! Next post will be the tiling of the floor! Ecological justification for this stage, I guess, is mostly just increasing building longevity and helping resident health by removal of rot and mold.


So, many of you have basically intimated that you hope I keep profitability in mind, or that you hope my economics work out. I also am not able to go under in my pursuit of ecological perfection in 4-plex form. With an apartment building it is not quite as simple as monthly income being greater than monthly outgo, although this would be nice. Additional profitability arises from tax benefits (2008 taxes involved sheltering some $2000 of my job income due to excess expenses, being able to depreciate my building, and getting a zero interest $7500 loan for being a first time home buyer) and from the appreciation of the property over time. Many of my expensive improvements (efficient hot water heater, outdoor temperature control on boiler and a new energy star fridge that uses a 3rd the power of the replacement) have payback periods that make sense. It helps that my MARR is low because I am a non-risky investor. I get 3 to 4 percent interest on my CDs, I avoid 6% interest if I pay back my mortgage principal early, I avoid 7% interest if I pay back my land in Talkeetna at an accelerated pace – so my interest rate to beat is about 7% on present-worthing future cash flows.

The other complication is that this is also my home and I live there, so I’m going to spend money to spruce it up like anyone else would, and most people know they won’t recover their improvement expenses in the short term, or even completely in the long term on a home. I also consider my CO2 busting expenditures a hobby, that is not necessarily cost effective. Some people build and fly radio-controlled helicopters, I put in energy efficient fridges and buy solar panels. I don’t go in to debt doing these things if they don’t pay me back more than the cost of the loan.

Also, all the landlording books I’ve read warn that you will not be profitable in your first year. Apparently, it is very common for this to be a very expensive repair and maintenance year. Also, although many expenses are tied to inflation, the biggie of mortgage repayment on a fixed interest rate is not, while rents should rise more or less with inflation.

So what are my numbers? Looking at it on a monthly basis, and thus ignoring the down payment and all those pesky closing expenses as part of the acquisition of the capital, and ignoring federal income tax adjustments, and ignoring the upgrades that will pay for themselves eventually with energy savings, I have expenses in excess of income, so far, of an average of $1402/month. Mostly this high value is due to a costly pipe breakage in the cold of January, that shouldn’t happen again and was too small to put in an insurance claim on (below my deductible). Also included are costs of all the other little repairs and improvements I’ve done (I’ll show pictures of the bathroom repairs/upgrades I have in the works next time). Ideally, this value would be less than the $650 I would charge a tenant for the apartment we are in. Also ok, mentally, would be if this was less than the $820 I was paying for the last apartment we were in, and in normal months it is, even with high winter utilities – just not when I also do elective upgrades or have a serious expense.

In any case, I am nowhere near the poor house, the place is getting better every month, I am preventing future emergencies with my proactive maintenance, and in 30 years I’ll have a mortgage-free source of retirement income (if I don’t sell first). I will revisit my month to month net income in a year or so, to see how things are shaping up!