Welcome to the big roundup! It’s been a while yeah? I’ve been really bad about getting my site going again, but I’ve got a decent excuse. I was running my site off a VPS over at Digital Ocean. It was nice because I developed skills applicable to my career field and I had complete control of my site as well as the underlying system. Unfortunately, that also meant I had to upkeep things. This was mostly fine, but I frequently had issues with space and eventually just ran out altogether. I bought myself a little Raspberry Pi and built my second (third actually, my first attempt on Digital Ocean didn’t go so smooth) LAMP stack running off a Pi 4 with a 256gb micro SD so I couldn’t possibly run myself out of space.
Unfortunately, after getting that all put together I ran up against the lovely restrictions that most ISPs enforce. Charter (or Spectrum as they call themselves now) denies traffic to port 80 & 443, along with other common ports like 22 or 25, to your router. This means that, even with my Pi serving content behind my router, there was no way for you lovely folks to access it. In the end it was cheap enough and easier to have my domain name servicer host my site so here I am, up and running again. Plus now I can do something silly like have my Pi mine crypto or something (I checked, not really worth it). I’ve got my content moved over and I’m working on getting the images and such working in my old posts, so bear with me while I get that fixed up.
I’ll stop rambling and get to the roundup pictures, and there are plenty of them. This is a long one, so settle in and toss on some Tropical Fuck Storm (shout-out to Kyle). As the title says, this post should be something of a catch up since I haven’t posted in so long. In reality, I don’t remember most of what I didn’t cover so I’m going to do my best. Some stuff will get a more involved post later as I remember it. If you want to know a bit more about what we did or how we did it, let me know in the comments, I actually get notifications about comments now. Enjoy!
Since we last spoke, a few cars have come and gone. Unfortunately, my horrible track record of getting my project cars finished has remained the same. First, we sold our Mazda3 (we miss it, a lot) later in 2019 as it was finally starting to make some ominous noises that I believe to have been failing timing chain guides at 236k miles. To replace that we bought a 2010 VW Jetta Sportwagen with the inline 5 gas engine. It’s a competent little car and we sorely needed the space for Ali’s business, but it’s got it’s own issues and drawbacks.
Earlier this year I sold the Laser back to one of the previous owners who has put more time and love into it than I was capable of doing. The Benz continues to wait on a replacement drivetrain and the Speed3 (which I don’t think I ever properly introduced) has been sitting for nearly 2 years now as I haven’t prioritized it as a project. A few months ago I finally convinced myself to knock at least one car off my “cars I must own” list (it’s a decent sized list) and I plunked some money down on the single most expensive thing I’ve ever bought, a 2002 Porsche 911 Cabriolet. In classic me fashion, it’s got it’s own issues that I’ll be working on once things warm up but overall it’s fantastic and terrifying all at once. It’s also the first car I’ve owned that doesn’t leak oil (that I know of). Technically, it leaks gear oil, which is different.
We’re currently searching for a minivan, likely a Honda Odyssey. We’d like to replace the VW and we’re once again running out of space to carry everything we need for Ali’s markets and events so it’s time to get some more space.
House Work – Big Projects
No year end roundup post would be complete without mentioning all the work we’ve completed on our house in the past few years. This past October marked 5 years (!!!) of owning our house and I’m pretty proud of all the stuff we’ve accomplished in that time. This year alone we had some really large projects, such as having our entire basement “waterproofed” through the company EverDry in late January of 2020.
That waterproofing was pretty necessary. We’d had issues with water intrusion every single Spring when the snow thawed, and smaller leakage issues anytime there was a heavy enough rain. For an unfinished basement some leakage may not seem like the largest issue but in the grand scheme of things the basement can control a lot of the factors that determine the health of your home and those living in it. As we plan to live here for the foreseeable future, this work was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it also came with a price tag that meant that I had effectively given up hope of owning a Porsche Cayman S for the next few years. As it is, my 911 only cost about $2k more than the basement work did. I plan to make a separate post about our EverDry experience as well, which so far has been just fine, though we haven’t needed them to come out and fix anything after so I can’t speak to the warranty.
It was pretty common to have a straight up small river of water flowing into the basement through walls or under the basement access door when we had snow melts or heavy rains. Our old sump pump was actually really reliable, though the float switch did fail once and another time (the pictures just above) I thought the exterior pipe may have frozen but that was my mistake as it was simply a loose fitting. I didn’t figure that out until we had a good few inches of water in our basement. Below are some of the pictures of the process of the EverDry work. It should be pointed out that we still have some landscaping work to do to ensure this area of the yard slopes properly.
Remember how housing values got absolutely silly? While it did screw basically any normal person looking to buy a house, it allowed us to expand our home equity line of credit and take down some other big ticket house items that I’d wanted to have done.
Our HVAC was last replaced sometime in the early 2000’s the best we could tell. It also was in pretty rough shape when we moved in and the last 5 years hasn’t been very kind to it. In addition to our AC running at something like 3 SEER efficiency (a modern baseline for efficiency is about 12-13 SEER) our furnace had started to make some rather concerning noises every time it started. To top it all off, we were still using 1″ thick filters, which are just hilariously bad at filtering air in general, let alone a house of our size with 2-3 people and 2-3 pets at any given time. We had Cardinal Heating and Cooling out to consult a bit and we eventually built a system that I’m happy with so far. We wanted to focus on efficiency as much as possible. As much as I think it’s silly to put the onus of climate change remediation on the individual, this was a prime chance to put my money where my mouth was and enact what small amount of change I can.
I should mention that in conjunction with this, we had an energy audit performed early in 2021 by American Home Consultants. I worked with Bob Runchey, he walked me through all the issues our house has, did a blower door test to benchmark our home for air leakage and then showed me what issues he would address first and what costs to expect if I didn’t want to tackle them myself. Our issues generally come down to air penetration and lack of sufficient air sealing or insulation. That cost us $450 and I’m not kidding when I say I’d gladly do it again. Bob knows soooo many people and was able to recommend several businesses/contractors for basically anything you might need done. I routinely reference the PDF he provided me after our consultation to check what’s next on the list of things that will give us the best performance per dollar in terms of efficiency. I’ve also emailed him several times with follow up questions and he’s been nice enough to answer those.
All of that was to explain that A. We choose to focus on the whole home as a system and highlight efficiency and that B. Cardinal Heating and Cooling was able to take that report, look at the tightness of the house as well as what improvements we plan to make, and then make suggestions for a system based on that. It makes a ton of sense to benchmark your house to understand where it’s at, and then make sure whoever is building your HVAC system knows your end goal as well so you don’t end up installing a system that’s going to be inefficient when you reach that end goal.
As part of our focus on efficiency, we chose a dual stage 96% efficient furnace with a stainless boiler (which unfortunately meant skipping a larger Focus on Energy rebate as this specific model wasn’t listed) that should last at least 20 years with proper maintenance. We also chose a heat pump system to cover our air conditioning and some of our heating needs. Our new unit achieves 18 SEER for cooling, which is great as that means we’re ahead of the curve for a good while on that front. It also achieves 10 HSPF, a measurement of how efficiently it can heat our house. That’s currently what the best heat pump units are achieving baring a few specialty units. All these numbers mean we can heat our house with the heat pump down to about 32 degrees before it starts to lose heating efficiency versus the gas furnace. The heat pump is so much quieter than our old unit, and the furnace being 2 stage means it’s generally not noticeable when it’s simply maintaining temperature. Even when it’s running on it’s high fan setting, the new furnace is less noisy than our old furnace.
Oh, and I made sure we got a much needed filter cabinet upgrade as well as a humidifier, which is essential in our house come winter unless you like 25% humidity. So far I love the system itself, it provides much more even heating and cooling due to the dual stage fan. Of course, as we’re now utilizing electricity to take on more of our heating burden, that part of our bill has gone up. All of this is without having done all the other air sealing and insulation work (hey, I had to pay for the 911 somehow!) so I expect that once that’s complete we will have a very efficient setup. It’s pretty crazy how much more comfortable it’s made our house as is. I have only two complaints thus far.
The first is the new thermostat, which is a Honeywell Prestige IAQ. This is supposed to be a nice thermostat but it seems to be missing some of the features that our older Ecobee had and it certainly does not have as nice of an interface. The app is atrocious as well, it’s like if 1990’s IBM (so basically 2021 IBM, I still fear their documentation sites) designed an app. It’s straight up ugly and clunky. Remember Web 1.0? It looks like that. The Honeywell also won’t allow me to use a remote sensor as the main sensor like the Ecobee did. With the Ecobee, I would set it to heat or cool at night based on the temperature of our room, so we stayed nice and comfy. With the Honeywell, the best I can do is average two or more sensors. Currently I have the thermostat itself and one remote sensor, which is not desirable as I get the worst of both worlds during the day and at night and thus end up leaving the remote sensor in the same room as the thermostat. Otherwise I’d need to move the sensor to our room at night and then back down each morning to get close to what the Ecobee did for me. Unfortunately it means I have a $45 paperweight. Now this might work if you simply never closed any doors, but I can’t imagine the majority of home owners leave all their doors open. The other issue I have is the AprilAire 700 is much less water efficient than our older 400M, which had a pressure switch to turn off the water supply when the filter media was fully saturated. I’ve mitigated this somewhat by closing the valve that supplies the 700 but it still irks me when I hear the condensate pump running and I know it’s just clean water being pumped down the drain.
Along with those larger upgrades, we made some smaller appliance upgrades that I’m pretty excited about. Yes, I know it’s a bit weird to be excited about a water heater but here we are. During our energy audit we discovered that our old gas water heater was back drafting a bit, it wasn’t a huge concern as our basement is large enough and leaky enough to dissipate the carbon monoxide without killing us, and we do have several CO sensors placed around the house that had never triggered. However, the water heater was also leaking through the bottom (has been since we moved in!) and I thought this was the perfect time to swap it out for something more efficient and renewable. We ended up landing on a heat pump water heater, a Rheem ProTerra 40 gallon unit to be exact. This is another of those efficiency picks, and since it’s setup right next to our dehumidifier, it’s able to harvest some of the heat that the dehumidifier puts out as waste energy and turn that into warm water.
We’ve been running it in heat pump only mode for the few months we’ve owned it so far and it’s been keeping up just fine. The only time it struggles is if we have two people shower one after the other (especially if one takes longer, you know who you are!) and the temps in the basement are lower. Currently the dehumidifier isn’t running (winter and all that) so there’s no waste heat being delivered and the temps in our basement are in the mid to high 50’s with outside temps in the single to low teens. That’s about as sub-optimal as our setup gets, barring sub-zero exterior temps, so I’m happy that even now the heater is able to keep up just using an air source heat pump. I am interested to see how it holds up, I know electric models typically have more maintenance associated with them and though our utility tells us our water is softened, it’s really fairly hard so that may cause issues.
My only actual complaint with the unit so far is that the wifi on it truly sucks and is limited to 2.4ghz only, so don’t expect to have the app working with any reliability. I had it working for about a week before the unit disconnected, and no matter what I do now it just won’t connect back up. Luckily I don’t need it, it’s just a neat way to collect data and usage statistics. I have heard others complain that it’s loud, and I suppose in comparison to a gas heater you could say it’s loud as it’s running a small compressor. However, we have it positioned directly below our kitchen and we can just hear it running after someone uses a lot of hot water.
I should also mention that we switched from gas to electric specifically because natural gas is not renewable. Our utility here in Columbus (Columbus Water & Light) also offers a renewable electricity program, in which you buy $2 blocks (300KwH per block) each month to fit how much energy you use. This is also part of why we went with a heat pump for our HVAC system. We can now run the majority of our house on renewable energy from several providers here in Wisconsin! In the very long term, we’d like to have our own solar setup but that’s quite expensive and likely would not happen until after our next roof replacement. That should be at least 10 years off.
Finally, we had a few small electrical and plumbing changes made. Nothing major but that meant they were also comparatively cheap and honestly, they made a large enough impact on quality of life that I wish we had made the changes sooner.
House Work – Interior
We’ve also made some progress on the interior and exterior front. We’ve been done with stripping wallpaper for some time thankfully, though we still have a single room with wallpaper that we currently use for storage. I shudder to think of the day we decide to pull that down and actually use the room. Likewise I haven’t done a lot of patching over the past year or so as we really finished that up pretty quickly in the first year or two and did the bulk of our painting then too. We did end up re-painting our living room and I must say the newer colors are much better suited to the space, so much better than the brown and tan we had going on. I recently mounted our TV to the wall as well and I honestly don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner, it’s sooooo much better and we get to reclaim some of the space the TV stand was taking up.
Remember when I replaced our master bathroom ceiling fan? I did that again, this time with an even larger and quieter unit, the Delta BreezSmart SMT150. I also made a horrible mistake with the vent: I ended up using a hood vent as I was having trouble finding a 6″ vent and it’s… not good. I will be replacing that with a flush mounted vent either when we finish remodeling the master bathroom or in 10 years when we get around to replacing siding. While I was replacing the 4″ ducting with 6″, I found that at some point someone has inserted screen into the ducting, which was packed full of dust and was almost certainly the cause of the performance issues with the existing fan. Oops. I also installed regular 6″ ducting and I should have used insulated ducting per Bob since it’s running through an unconditioned space in the attic. I did buy an insulated ducting run but haven’t changed it out yet as the bathroom is torn apart and not in use. We have many projects in flight, though in my defense some more materials just arrived this week to start replacing the shower walls so perhaps it will be in progress again soon.
We did get some other rooms setup pretty dang well, in particular Ali’s office has been repainted twice already and things have been shuffled around multiple time so it’s setup pretty solid at this point. My sister helped us setup one of our spare rooms, but then ended up moving into a different room and has since fixed that one up a little as well.
In early 2020, just after the lockdown began, I engineered a built-in shelf setup for our laundry room as we always hated the setup that was in there. More recently, we put some effort into another of the spare rooms to get it prepped for our new years party. It needs a lot of trim work yet but it’s coming together pretty well!
House Work – Exterior
I know this is supposed to be a year end roundup, but it’s been so long since I posted that I figured it wouldn’t hurt to include all the stuff I haven’t posted about yet. You’ll have seen some of this work already in the section above, but I thought it worth showing how things started. On the exterior front, we’ve done a ton of yard work that I never posted about
We had a huge push shortly after we first move in as we knew we’d be using our back yard for our wedding. Luckily that means we completed the vast majority of what we wanted to do early on and the outside word has tapered off since then. Nowadays we’re often gone on weekends for Ali’s business so what weekends we do get we just want to relax or have other projects to work on. I’m really happy with how it’s looking currently, though there’s always still work to be done. We essentially nuked both sides of the house as far as plants go and then reclaimed some of that as yard space. We do have a few spots we need to go over again and then we plan to either landscape with traditional mulch or build some raised beds to plant in. We also have plans for a vegetable garden, again at some vague point in the future. We got rid of a few trees that had either had some health issues or were just enabling squirrels to jump onto our house. They can still cross the power line onto the house but at least one of them lost that game a few years back.
Going back through old pictures, it’s crazy how much the yard has changed in the past few years. It’s a great remainder that, as much as we still have work to do, it looks so much better than it did. I’m going to take a moment here to plug my sisters job, Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control of Madison. We’ve had them do more than a small amount of work on our house and we’ve been really happy with the results thus far. In years past we’ve had issues with squirrels chewing into our house, one of the downsides of having wood siding. We fixed that by patching over the affected area with metal, but as rodents do, the squirrels found other places to chew and attempt entry. One trouble spot was the chimney as they figured out they could build a nest at the top without chewing on anything. One of the ding dongs even fell into the fire place 2 times before we finally asked Moriah to do something about it.
After this incident, and on the advise of Bob (another of those items on the report) I opened all the windows for our attic to allow the house to breath a bit more up there. We had actually developed a small amount of mold in the attic that Bob pointed out and opening the windows was part of keeping that from continuing. Excess heat would also build up in the attic in summer and would come down through air penetrations to the second floor rooms so you’d sometimes wake up to a room that was 80 degrees, not my favorite on a summer night. As a side effect of opening those windows, the squirrels took notice pretty quickly that they could chew the screen open. This resulted in me walking up into the attic and meeting one of said intruders face to face. So we had Skedaddle come and take a look at how they would remediate that. We ended up opting to basically screen over the windows with stainless steel so they couldn’t chew through them. That doesn’t stop them from trying mind you, and they made quite some noise chewing on the stainless for a good week or two before they gave up.
You’ll also notice they screened over the corners of our eaves, as the rodents had taken to chewing holes in those as well. We’ve also had issues with mice (what older house hasn’t?) but they were particularly tenacious this year so once again Moriah swooped in to plug up some holes in our foundation (which we’ll need to have fixed in a load bearing capacity at some point) and the side skirting around the house that were pretty obvious culprits for letting mice in. We haven’t seen any signs of mice in the few weeks since that was completed and if it’s as effective as the squirrel deterrent then I’ll be quite happy.
Our biggest projects currently are getting our master bathroom fixed up to be usable again and some floor issues. Our master bathroom has had issues with the plumbing plugging up regularly, so much so that our sink would be basically unusable. We also want to move from a tub to a walk in shower so we’ve got a good amount of work to do. This will include removing the tub, replacing a good bit of plumbing, and replacing the walls with a water resistant material that we can tile over.
The other big concern at the moment is our first floor flooring. The living room in particular has a lot of flex in the floor and you can see obvious cracks in the floor joists. Beyond that, there doesn’t appear to be anything connecting the joists to the foundation in the area where we’re seeing the sagging floors. Likely we need to fix that first, then jack up and sister the joists, and we should probably add some joist hangers once all that’s done to ensure everything has the support it needs.
Shortly after the pandemic started I, like many others, rediscovered my love for woodworking and various other hobbies. I’ve practiced woodworking as far back as elementary school, due to 4-H projects and the like, but once we bought our house I really discovered how useful it is. As a hobby, I’ve discovered that it’s pretty easy to do at a basic level, there’s a ton of depth of knowledge to be gleaned, and it’s not super expensive provided you know someone with the larger tools or you don’t aspire to the kinds of projects that might require the more expensive tools. I’ve worked on a few projects in the past several years including; built-in shelves in several rooms, refinishing a cedar chest with several neat veneers, refinishing a table and some other surfaces, lots of finishing for trim and such, some paint stripping, and more recently I’ve been remaking some of the older storm frames with black locust. Some of these are large enough projects that I’ll do separate posts on them.
I want to acknowledge right at the top of this one how much of a privileged position I’m in, so take my complaints below with a grain of salt. I live a pretty charmed life, all things considered 🙂
In late 2020 we were told our positions at QBE were being outsourced sometime in early to mid 2021. At the time it was pretty stressful, but in hindsight it could not have happened at a better time and in something of a twist it’s been rather beneficial for my career. I was able to stick out my time, collect my PTO payout and a nice severance, and then land a job with work that’s more enjoyable for me, more relevant to what I want to do with my career, and pays a good bit more to boot. The experience also allowed me to take a month off to breath and just focus on enjoying life and coming to terms with the pandemic and it’s many implications.
That break was my first vacation in quite some time and I valued that a lot, it allowed me to step into my new role as a DevOps infrastructure engineer with Aarons refreshed and ready to learn. And learn I have! In the past 6 months or so I’ve become fairly proficient with several of the core DevOps tools we use; from Octopus to BitBucket, a spot of Azure, and even tools I hadn’t touched before like Kubernetes and Ansible. I’m now an Ansible champion by the by, I ended up using it to rebuild all the infrastructure on one of the app teams I’m embedded on. I’m particularly proud of that as I went from knowing nothing about Ansible to having it running all the infrastructure for that applications within 6 months, on a more recent and secure OS to boot. Now we can reliably re-deploy our QA and Prod environments within 35 minutes from blank slate to complete working application as long as we’ve got our BitBucket and Octopus pipelines accessible (I’m looking at you AWS).
The experience taught me a ton about interviewing (having the same job for nearly a decade, I was a little rusty) and a ton about my worth as well as what I actually enjoy and am interested in. It was nice to have that kind of reset opportunity and it’s hard to understate how excited I am about the work I’m doing now. My ultimate goal is still to work for NASA JPL (space camp nerd checking in) or maybe someone like Nintendo, both of which have a DevOps footprint so I’m on the path.
People & Pets
As is true of most anyone during the extended pandemic, we’ve lost some folk and unfortunately we also lost one of our cats pre-pandemic. Zoey, my inspector cat for most of my house work, had some medical issues that popped up and got out of control very quickly. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my life. Putting her down was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made and likely my first true regret in my lifetime. That was in late 2019, and we still miss her dearly.
The only good thing to come from this was that we added another cat to the family a few months later. Maggie is our little rescue cat from the Columbia County Humane Society. At this point she’s about 2.5 years old, look how small she was when we first picked her up, only a few months old.
Here are some more recent pictures of her, living her best life. She tends to lay on her back when she wants to get comfortable (perhaps to show off her nice Taco Cat Creations bowtie?), loves to get up close to your food, and in general has too much energy. She’s also very loud and very insistent when she wants attention, or any time she wanders the house and thinks she is lost.
On the people front we’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve had a few folks pass on, and a few of our inner circle have also tested positive for Covid-19, though luckily they’ve been mild cases.
A notable loss occurred pre-pandemic. Back in early 2018 our family lost our Yoda, Patsy Knight. I always enjoyed visiting with her, she’d often come over and sit on my parents porch with us and just talk about whatever was going on. She lived in Markesan, so sometimes I’d visit her after school as well. She lived a hell of a life (including raising some of my favorite people) but always seemed to stay positive. Patsy and her daughter Becky have had an outsized positive impact on my life and I wish I had been able to properly articulate that to her. I’ve had an idea to interview family for some time now, the idea being to get to know them better and therefore gain a deeper understanding of who they are and how they got where they are. I was hoping to start with Patsy and I’ve been kicking myself for never getting around to it. I don’t really do the “thoughts and prayers” thing, but I hope wherever Patsy is, she’s enjoying a pain free existence. For myself, I’ll take comfort in the impact she had on me.
On a more positive note, we’ve seen a large push over the past few years for people to properly practice self care and to destigmatize dealing with your mental health. I think that may well be the best thing to have come from the ongoing pandemic, other than work from home becoming more standard where possible. Of course, we over here aren’t immune to these things and we’ve taken up, dropped, and then resumed several habits with our newfound free time.
Meditation and training my brain in gratefulness were key to not freaking out during the period when I knew I was losing my job and didn’t have a next job lined up. I also took up shaving with a safety razor (a Rockwell 6s) and I love it. It’s a small ritual I get to do each week with low barrier to entry, low time consumption, it’s much more renewable than cartridge razors, and I get immediate results. Of course, I also grew my hair and beard out for over a year. It was something to behold.
I also finally got fed up with buying new shoes every 4-6 months and bought a pair of boots. I chose a pair of Thursday Boot Company Captains because they’re relatively inexpensive, have good reviews, and had some refreshing colors beyond the typical palette paired with a classic style. I also wanted some boots with winter ready outsoles and I wanted to be sure I’d be able to re-sole the boots later on to be more sustainable. The Thursdays checked all the boxes and I’ve had them for about 4 months at this point. I clean and condition them monthly and so far I love them, if they hold up for a few years they will easily have been worth the cost and if I’m able to keep the leather in good enough condition that I simply need to re-sole them, even better.
Those cover my daily wear, and I chose a lightly used pair of Allbirds Tree Dashers from eBay as my workout shoe (I’ve worked out in the boots but predictably, range is a little limited) as they also lean sustainable and having a split between what I workout in versus what I daily means both will last longer. Shoutout to a few other sustainability focused shoe efforts by Saucony, Saola, Vivo, Adidas and Everlane!
Ugh, I don’t have the energy for this one just yet.
Currently that’s about all my brain can retrieve from the past few years. As I said at the top, I’m sure I’ll recall more as I dig through pictures and the like and hopefully I’ll be back to posting on a semi-regular basis. In the meantime, stay safe and sane out there!