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Sunday, March 26, 2017

DIY Disasters: What to Do When a Project Goes Wrong

Every year during my Spring Break my wife goes out of town for a work trip. For the week that she is gone, I get to be on full-time daddy duty. I look for fun things to do with my kids, but we also look for home projects to do to surprise mommy when she returns. This year we filled our time with a train park, the zoo, irrigation, electrical work, and painting.

And here's what happened...


I wanted to run an irrigation line for my kids' Secret Garden. Seeing where the water pipe ran into my workshop, I trenched 15 feet for the placement of the sprinkler valves, including two feet under a walkway that I had built. Having laid out everything in preparation for the waterline, I then cut into the water pipe. There was a sizzle, some smoke, a pop, and then a clean cut through the pipe. Apparently when my workshop was built, instead of running the electrical through in-the-ground-approved conduit, they cut corners and used sprinkler PVC. So now I had a cut line that needed to be repaired, no electrical going to my workshop, and the trenching that I had done was useless. The rest of my day was spent repairing the electrical line, so at the end of the day I had accomplished exactly nothing towards the completion of this project.
Whoops. That was live electricity.

The next day I shifted gears and did some trenching to replace and re-run sprinklers in my yard. I added five sprinkler heads, so there was quite a bit of trenching that I needed to do for that, but I knew that I was running it from actual water lines, so I had that going for me. I had to stop before completing the project, knowing that I could finish it up the next day.

Early the next morning, I awoke to the sound of rain. I was a little confused, since there was no rain in the forecast, but I listened for about five minutes, just enjoying the sound of the rain. Then, as I gradually woke up, I realized that I wasn't hearing rain. I ran outside, only to witness water shooting up 20 feet in the air. Apparently, as I was trenching for the new sprinkler line, I nicked an existing line for another part of the yard. That small crack created enough pressure to give us our very own Old Faithful in our backyard. I suspended the irrigation, and the next day was spent digging out and repairing the broken irrigation line.

And these used to be my PVC cutters.
At times like this I ask myself, "Why do I DIY?" I have so many stories of projects that were less than ideal. But for me, those less-than-ideal situations are way overshadowed by the times that things go right. The Secret Garden is something that I can't stop looking at. Not because everything there is perfect and I am an amazing builder. But because my kids love the time they spend there. I can't stop looking at it because of the joy it brings them.

Before you go thinking that I'm some sort of altruistic giver of joy, I need to tell you that I'm not. Unfortunately I don't just do things to bring other people joy. I build and garden and DIY because, when I don't, I feel restless. I'm like Roger Rabbit in the recesses of a bar, trying to stay quiet while Shave and a Haircut is being tapped. When I don't DIY, I start to go crazy.

When mishaps, blunders, mistakes, or catastrophes occur, I become BATMAN. Here's what I do:

Breathe - I take a deep breath, or twelve, and calm myself down. No matter what I've done, it could always be worse (I'm the guy who cut part of his own thumb off once).
So much new trenching, I was bound to nick an existing pipe.

Assess the situation - Look at what has happened. See if it is as bad as you think it is. Make sure that it won't get worse (turn off water, electricity, or nuclear power if necessary).

Take a break - Often, after assessing, I need to take a break from what I was doing. I need to clear my head. The opposite would be to go into the situation with guns a-blazing, and that will typically make things worse.

Make a list - Check on the supplies needed for the unexpected repair. There may be something that you already have, or you may need to run to your local hardware store. Take pictures of the problem to make sure that you cover all of your bases.

Now there's another repair in the books.
Ask for help - You may need to turn to the internet, somebody at a hardware store, or a friend for advice or help. The internet is a wonderful resource, but some of the DIY advice out there is a bit shady.

Nod at a job well done - This is after you have tackled the repair, but give yourself the satisfaction of looking at the completed repair/job and relish in the fact that you made it happen.


 So while I prefer to have projects completed with no disasters and nothing but pure perfection in the end, I will gladly take the broken water pipes and severed electrical lines over not getting to do a project. I prefer fighting with uneven floors or paint spills over letting my hands be idle. I DIY because that is what is inside of me, and I embrace it. After all, I am BATMAN.

But I would still rather not destroy a hand tool with live electricity in the future.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

My Pool Remodel: To DIY or Not to DIY

As an avid DIYer, I like to take on any project around the house. If it's something that I am not familiar with, I will read up on the process, talk to pros, and estimate the cost savings of doing it myself versus hiring somebody to do it. So as our pool surface began to slowly crumble over the past two years, I looked into what I could do to make the repairs myself.

How did I know the pool needed to be repaired?

The plaster in pools is extremely porous. Over time, it becomes more and more porous, and the chemicals have a difficult time killing algae that attaches to the plaster. We had some black algae that I could not get rid of, and as I asked several experts, they stated that it was time to resurface. Additionally, there were areas where the plaster was falling off, especially around the stairs. And finally, our waterfall had developed some large cracks and holes, rendering it completely unusable, and in the final days, somewhat dangerous. It was time to do something.

To DIY, or Not to DIY? That's the question

Old rocks, old tile, old surface
I started looking at ways to DIY the surface of my pool. The process would have been to drain the pool, clean the surface, and use a multiple step epoxy to coat the pool. At first glance it seemed quite doable. In fact, I started staging myself for the project, going so far as to purchase a pressure washer for the surface prep (like I needed an excuse). But then as I looked at the cost of a surface coat, and as I read reviews of people who had used them, I started to realize that this process was quite finicky and rather expensive. It would have cost more than $2000 to DIY the pool surface, and I read enough reviews from people who ended up having to surface again after only a couple of years because of an epoxy coat that did not adhere. I realized that this was probably a Not DIY project.

Not to DIY. What next?

Chipped out pools are fun to run in!
Whenever I look to hire a professional, I turn to the most trusted source that I have found in the state for home improvement - Rosie on the House. Rosie is a local contractor, but he has a contractor network with vetted professionals that cover every area of the home. Going through the network, I found a veteran-owned local company that I decided to call.

Above and Beyond

I figured it wouldn't hurt to get a free quote, so I called Above and Beyond Pool Remodeling. I was fully expecting an astronomical cost for a pool resurface, based on the size of our pool, but I was pleasantly surprised at what it would cost to resurface our pool. In fact, we ended up upgrading to a mini pebble surface compared with our plaster surface, which bumped our surface warranty from 5 years to 15 years (interesting tidbit - plaster pools don't last as long nowadays as they used to because they no longer have asbestos in the plaster. I can only imagine what I absorbed through my feet all those years playing in the pool as a kid). A second company that I had previously contacted was working on our waterfall, but Above and Beyond (AB) was the company that we felt most comfortable with for our remodel.
The slide added to the waterfall

The Process

I expected the pool remodel to be a several month long process. I was extremely surprised at how quickly our pool went from run down and broken to pristine and new. The short of it is that the pool was worked on for a total of 7 days. This doesn't take into account the rain delays (yes, we do occasionally get rain in Arizona), or the time that work wasn't happening because we were out of town.

Preparing to spray in the surface
Days 1 and 2 - Drain and chipout. Little E loved this day. He thought it was awesome watching the plaster and tile being broken out. In fact, he asked the AB crew for a piece of plaster, which they gladly shared with him. He was so happy with how sparkly it was. And then I threw it away when he wasn't looking (because, asbestos).

Days 3, 4, and 5 - Waterfall repair, addition, and painting. Our waterfall was in bad shape. It was hollow and falling apart. As we looked to repair it, we saw some pictures of waterfalls that had built-in slides. As we figured out how we could add this, we were able to cut costs by utilizing the waterfall itself as the steps to the slide. The forms were built, the concrete poured, the texture and outlines added, and the stain applied. This was also the day that the kids saw that they were getting a slide. Big excitement in the house!
Surface cured - filling it up!

Day 6 - Tile. Our old faded tile was replaced. This went in rather quickly, and I couldn't stop looking at the pool, anticipating many wonderful family gatherings (and hoping that Cousin Eddie realized he couldn't swim and didn't come).

Day 7 - Mini Pebble. This day blew me away. I was so intrigued by the process that I worked from home this morning. Watching the guys spray in the surface, smooth it out, and spray on the pebbles was absolutely enthralling. It was truly like watching artists at work. Within a couple of hours, the entire pool was coated and left to dry. Yet again, when I came home I continually went to the door to look at the pool, amazed at how quickly everything had transformed.
Look at that beautiful new tile and surface!

Day 8 - Acid wash and filling. So I initially didn't count this as one of the days, but it was an important one to make sure that everything was clean before we started filling the pool. The hose was turned on, and by the next day the kids were already in the pool (it happened to be 55 degrees that day, but the kids didn't care. They had a new pool that needed to be christened, and they were up for the challenge).

While the water has still been quite cold, I did make it in the pool once, just out of sheer stubbornness of wanting to enjoy the new pool. The kids, on the other hand, have been in daily. I can't wait to join them when the weather warms up a bit. And I can't recommend Above and Beyond enough. I am always amazed when I have an experience with a contractor that ends up being so positive that I want to refer everybody I know to them. Wonderful company, wonderful owner, wonderful process.
Looks inviting!

In the end, this was a costly repair, but because of the avenue we took, we will have a pool that will not have to be resurfaced again for close to 20 years or more. Our backyard is back to its enjoyable self, and we don't have to worry about inviting the family over to swim in algae water with possible asbestos chunks at the bottom. Not to DIY was a great choice, and Above and Beyond is a highly recommended company for those in the Phoenix area. 

But now I'm ready for some kind of DIY... This itch needs to be scratched.




And it is inviting...
...but cold.




Tuesday, February 28, 2017

13 Tips and Tricks for Your Next Disneyland Vacation

Disneyland, in California, has got to be one of my favorite places in the world. For those who know me, this may come as a surprise. I don't like crowds, and I don't like lines. If you have never been to Disneyland, let me fill you in. They have both of these things there. So why do I like it?

It is magical!

Unlike other theme parks, Disneyland is filled with magical wonderment, which I can enjoy as an adult, and I enjoy even more with my kids. When Big E was 2 and we took her to Disneyland for the first time, I wept when, as we got off a boat ride, "Captain Emily" said, "You dropped something, princess," and proceeded to give her a plastic "glass" slipper. Magical! For me, this kind of magic overcomes my dislike of crowds and lines.

But Disneyland can be a daunting undertaking. I consider myself somewhat of a seasoned pro when it comes to making the most of a Disneyland vacation. So here are 13 tips for a wonderful Disneyland vacation.

Planning/Pre-Trip

1. Hotel - When it comes to staying at Disneyland, I love staying at a Disney hotel. Sure, it is less expensive at other neighborhood hotels, but if you can, spring for a Disney hotel. There is something magical about being close to the park, getting into the parks early (see #2), and having the "We will do whatever it takes to make your day magical" attitude. I spend several weeks watching the website for the lowest nightly fare that I can find. The deals come and go, so when you see something that you think can't be beat, lock it in right away. If you find a better deal within the Disney hotels you can change your reservation.

Rain gear is a must...
2. Magic Hour - Part of staying at a Disney hotel is getting an extra hour in either California Adventure or Disneyland just by showing your room key. This to me is the main reason to stay in a Disneyland hotel. Four years ago we got on six rides in the first hour without waiting in line for any of them. Be sure to check the list of rides available and days of Magic Hour.

3. Rain gear - Check the weather before heading to the park and pack rain gear if necessary. It is also important to make sure that the rain gear works. Our most recent visit was the storm that ended California's drought. Our rain gear was not sufficient. But if you are in the park with no or insufficient rain gear, head to the nearest shop and pick up a Disneyland poncho. $10 is well worth staying dry for your day in the park.
...but bring it if you can.

4. Comfortable clothing - this is a given, but I would like to plug one of my new favorite articles of clothing. For Christmas I got a pair of Duluth pants (http://www.duluthtrading.com). They are the most comfortable pants I have ever worn, so I decided that they would be my Disneyland pants. Not only were they comfortable, but, since they repel water, I stayed perfectly dry from the waist down on our trip. Dads, these are well worth their weight in gold. Moms, you should make sure the dads out there have at least one pair of these.

5. There's an app for that - There are many Disneyland apps that all claim to be the best. Two that I like are the Disneyland App and RideMax. The Disneyland app is a free app that shows wait times, character locations, restaurants, shows, and (important for any parent) restrooms. You can also store your tickets and reservations in the app, keeping everything handy in one place. RideMax is a paid app ($15 for 90 days). You enter in the rides that you want, the pace you want, and the number in your party, and they give you an itinerary that is remarkably accurate and minimizes your time in lines. It's Walt Disney meets MIT.


Character breakfast - personal jumping lessons
with Tigger
6.Character breakfasts - We first discovered this a couple of trips ago. There are character meals throughout the day with characters walking around greeting the guests. The food is really good, and, while the meal tends to be a little expensive, this is usually our one big meal of the day (breakfast is buffet style). The kids love meeting all the characters, and I love not waiting in lines to do it. My recommendation is to shoot for a between meal time and supplement with snacks (Plaza Inn in Disneyland around 10:30, or Ariel's Grotto in California Adventure around 4:30). Reservations need to be made ahead of time. Just like with the hotel, if your preferred time is taken, keep checking back up until the day before.

In the Parks

7. Dole Whip - This is a must. If you do nothing else at Disneyland, you must have a Dole Whip. It is located by the Tiki Room in Adventureland. Dole Whip is a really refreshing whipped pineapple soft served heaven on a cloud. Plan on getting a couple of extras to share, because one is never enough. The line is usually long, but if you go into the Tiki Room waiting area, there is a second line there which is usually about a quarter of the length. If you have little kids, ask for an umbrella for their Dole Whips and relish in being the hero.

8. Fast Pass - Fast Passes are available for most of the rides that typically have longer lines. Send one member of your group (with everybody's tickets - required for obtaining a Fast Pass) to get the Fast Passes. These allow you to move to a much quicker line, usually less than 10 minutes. Look at the time to obtain another Fast Pass, and keep them coming. The less you wait in line, the better.

Big E is a Jedi now!
9. Jedi Training Academy - We almost missed this one with our kids. This is an opportunity for kids to lightsaber fight Darth Vader. You need to sign your kid up for it first thing in the morning, and you will be given a time for the academy (make sure your kid is with you when you sign him or her up). If your kids don't get in, sign them up for an alternate slot. Big E was an alternate and got into the academy the second time we checked in. She said it was the highlight of her day.

10. Rider Swap - If you have multiple adults, you are eligible for Rider Swap on any ride with minimum height requirements. One adult and any eligible children go through the line and onto the ride. They then ask for a Rider Swap pass. This can be given to the other adult and/or eligible children, who can then skip the line and have a turn on the ride. This is a must-remember for any families going to Disneyland with younger children. 

11. Cheap Souvenirs - It's Disneyland, so technically nothing is cheap. However, while we were
Nothing but smiles and cartwheels
waiting for my wife and one daughter to ride the roller coaster in California Adventure, which Little E couldn't ride, we looked at the carnival games. While most of the games are typical, favor-is-not-on-your-side carnival games, the Goofy About Fishin' game was not. It cost $2.50 to hook a fish with a magnetic fishing pole, and every fish was a winner. Granted the prizes were little stuffed animals, but nowhere in Disneyland can you buy a stuffed animal for less than $15. Little E was so thrilled with his starfish and whale and turtle and another whale, that he didn't care that he was too short for the roller coaster.

12. Gluten Free Eating - If you or a family member happen to be gluten free, there are many things to eat in the park. In fact, I found Disneyland to be one of the most gluten free friendly places that I've ever been. We had no problems finding gluten free buns, gluten free waffles, and many other things that made our kids happy.

End of day 2 and still smiling
13. Disneyland City Hall - Know where this is, because this is where lost items are taken, including but not limited to lost cell phones and lost kids. Yes, I admit it, we have lost our kids at Disneyland. One at each of our last two trips to Disneyland. The first time we found Big E right away because we were wearing matching shirts and a Disneyland cast member located us right away (they have a highly efficient way of reuniting kids with parents). The second time Big A was gone for about ten minutes. She wandered away on Main Street. We looked for her for about a minute, and then my wife and kids stayed where we were and I headed straight to City Hall. While they were contacting security, a cast member walked up with my daughter. It was scary, but because I was waiting at the right place, we were reunited fairly quickly.

Disneyland is a magical place. A place where crowds somehow do not affect me the way that they do at the mall or in Costco. It's a place where I get excited buying a $5 chocolate covered frozen banana, because it tastes so much better in the park (I think they sprinkle them with pixie dust). I can't wait for my next trip, so I can hopefully bring you some new tips and tricks.

Walt Disney said, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible." I think he was referring to not only surviving but completely enjoying a family trip to Disneyland.


Monday, January 30, 2017

The Secret Garden, Building a Secret Entrance

Last summer my kids and I began planning a secret garden (if you missed the first installment of this project, you can read about it here). The plan was to turn a junky, sheltered corner of my yard into a secret garden for my kids. Now I have to admit something. This was partly a selfish plan on my part. My kids love playing outside, and they love playing in the dirt. Digging, making mud pies, throwing dirt clods. As long as dirt is involved, they love it. So I figured if they have a corner of the yard to call their own, they will stop procuring their dirt from the yard and vegetable garden.

So we began with the question: What makes a secret garden a Secret Garden? The answer: a secret entrance.

After determining where the secret entrance would be, I started working on the door. The door frame consists of two four by four posts sunk in concrete, with an arch spanning the top. The arch was made with redwood fence panels, layered, cut in angles, glued, and then shaped into an arch. The gate was also made from redwood fence panels, glued and shaped to match the circumference of the arch.
Bushes out; time to set the posts

After all of the gate pieces were cut and assembled, it was time to dig out the oleander bushes. We needed to remove two oleanders to make space for the new door, so we got out the saws, loppers, and shovels, and we went to town. After numerous irrigation repairs (seriously, why would anybody run sprinkler lines directly underneath a row of oleanders?), we had our space.

So here is where thinking ahead really helped me. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew that I wanted to have something in the front of the gate that would undo the latch at the back of the gate. After all, it wouldn't be a secret garden if any old person could find a way in. So, knowing that something would eventually work out, I embedded a u-shaped piece of PVC pipe in the concrete when we set our posts in the ground. The concrete dried, the kids wrote their initials, and the gate was up.
First post in

The next step required trial and error. After installing the latch, I had to figure out how to secretly open it from the front. At first I ran a piece of chain from the top of the latch, through the u-shaped piece of PVC, and out to the front of the gate. The chain weighed so much that it would not allow the clasp to close. After various trials using different materials, I finally attached a spring to the thin wire that ran to the front of the gate. This spring allows the wire to release the gate closure to open the gate, but then snaps the closure back in place, ensuring that grownup riffraff  will not wander into the secret childhood space. The wire ran through the PVC and was attached to a small log. By pulling up on the log, the kids can secretly open the gate, and the grownups are none the wiser!

Helping with the concrete
After the gate was finalized, it was time to begin clearing out the space. Big A and I went to town, removing old yard waste, tree debris, a pile of dirt, and some roofing materials.

While the Secret Garden now has its secret entrance, it is still a blank slate. Be watching for the transformation to see what kind of magic my kids begin to make back there.


All smiles while digging
Sisters playing with concrete
Completed arch!
The Secret Gate

The secret log
Still all smiles!
What will this trash pile become?
Time to clean up
The magic spring











Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Four Ways to Find Free Firewood

This time of year, there are few things that I like more than having a cozy fire in the fireplace on a chilly evening. Yes, I live in Arizona, and our chilly evenings are not the same as the frigid nights that we had when we lived in Chicago, but nonetheless, I like fires. Crackling logs, the fragrant smell of the wood burning, the flickering glow of the flames. It is the perfect background for reading a book, watching a movie, cooking, cleaning, or doing just about anything.

But I'm cheap. For years I would buy cords or half cords of perfectly cut and stacked firewood. This wood was usually more than what I wanted to spend on something that would just be burned up in my fireplace. Then I turned into Scrooge, putting as few logs on the fire as possible. Just enough to give me the glow and the smells and the feeling, without actually being a roaring fire. But this didn't satisfy my desire to have regular fires in the fireplace. So I started looking for cheaper ways to enjoy everything that comes with a fireplace fire.