My new year’s house resolutions

January 2, 2009

My house project for 2009 is sustainability—in its many forms. Now that we’ve lived here for over a year (as hard as that is to believe!) I have a much better sense of exactly how long projects take to finish….so this year I’m putting together a pretty targeted list of projects to tackle in the hopes that come next New Year’s Eve, I’ll be able to check all of these off the list. Here goes!

1. BETTER WINDOW INSULATION. If we can afford it, this might mean replacing some of the windows, especially in the bedroom, where they’re super leaky. For most of our windows, though, it means some serious weatherstripping. Right now my plan is to use Spring Bronze weather strips. I’ve been reading up on these, and they seem to have the big bonus of being historically appropriate and (if reports are to be believed) hugely effective, all while making the windows open and close more easily—an issue in our house, where the windows have been painted dozens of times. I’m also still in awe of our Oakland neighbors over at House Made, who tore out and restored their windows themselves, as did the crew over at House in Progress. Some of our windows might be candidates for this if it weren’t for the days (weeks? months??) they would sit open, based on my track record with other projects. Seems iffy at best. In the meantime, I keep hunting for good Bay Area window restorers who don’t charge $1500 per window….*sigh*

2. DROUGHT-TOLERANT LANDSCAPING. We’re already pretty good at this, and spent a lot of time and money last year retrofitting our sprinkler system to be a programmable drip system. Unfortunately, shortly after I finished that project we got the Labradane, who thinks it’s really fun to chew on drip tubes. So now I’m redesigning the whole system to bury the tubes in some places and replace them with low-flow sprinkler heads in others. We’re also hoping to finally put down new drought-tolerant sod in the yard; we’ve successfully killed the old grass after a summer of no water, so now we have a lovely pool of mud in our backyard. That’s unfortunately hanging in limbo until we finish replacing the retaining wall on that side of the yard (that’s an even longer story that I won’t get into now!) But by the end of 2009, the goal is to have a largely self-sufficient yard.

3. PRODUCTIVE VEGETABLE BED. Yeah, we tried this one last year too. 2009 will be the second pass at it, since we only had lukewarm success. A friend thinks we need more potassium in our soil. (“Your soil is too good,” she explained to me—who knew soil could be too good??) Sometime this month I’ll pull the stragglers out and redo the irrigation in the veggie bed, mixing in some soil nutrients while I’m at it. I’m also moving the tomato bed to be up against our south-facing house wall. Maybe this year we’ll get some actual vegetables! (Last year our plants grew profusely, but didn’t fruit much.)

4. NEW POWER STRIPS. Seems like a small step, but we’re investing in some smart power strips this year so that our appliances can be turned on and off with a switch. We’re actually pretty low-tech as home theater goes, but even the television by itself is a huge vampire power hog, and now we have a powered converter box thingamajig too for the digital switchover. And because we’re old school, we’ve got a VCR that is used solely for wiring the television to our Wii, since the television doesn’t have the right inputs. Highly efficient. Maybe we’ll fix that too.

5. CLOTHES LINE. We have a dinky folding clothes rack already, but it’s been the plan to install a “real” one for a while now. The challenge there has actually been finding an affordable umbrella-style rack that wasn’t made in China. You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard, but…. We’ll either sink it in concrete in the lawn or (more likely) put it in a standing base on the patio. The bonus? We can get a base that will double as a stand for a patio umbrella, when we finally get one of those! Read more about line drying options here.

6. NO MORE LEAKY TUB. Our tub has a very, very slow drip. So slow that it’s not even annoying enough that we remember it’s there. It’s been there forever—was even in the first inspection the previous owner had done, almost two years ago!—and it really, really needs to be fixed. Really. Hmm. Wouldn’t it be convenient if someone decided this would be a fun weekend project sometime soon?

7. RAIN BARREL. Something else we’ve been talking about for a while now. D. has a plan to set up a wannabe greywater system with our washer, which happens to be just inside our garage on a wall with a downspout on the other side. The idea is to route both the downspout and the washer drain into the rain barrel and then to use the water on landscaping.

8. RETAINING WALL & FENCE. Not exactly a sustainability improvement, unless by “sustainable” you mean
“our yard not collapsing into our neighbors’ yard.” We are attempting to tackle the project using reclaimed wood, though. Still not sure that will fly with our neighbors, though. (The building next door is owned by a management company, which means there are way too many steps involved in getting bids on this project and getting it approved by various boards and supervisors….it’s been underway since May. ‘Nuff said.)

9. DISHWASHER. Last but not least, I’m determined that by the end of 2009, we will have a dishwasher! Actually this was supposed to happen by last September (my “one year in the house” rule—at least the seismic retrofit and rewiring were done on time!) But it gets bumped to this year’s list for many complicated reasons.

And that’s the list. I’m trying to be realistic this time around, and not start up too many new projects until we get a handle on the ones already underway. (Ignore the hole in our bathroom ceiling that’s been there since February, please….) So no chickens or solar water heaters on this year’s list….but there’s always 2010!


  1. I want a clothesline….I should have asked Santa.

  2. Wow! What a list! Beats mine all to heck…

    Are you planning on returning your windows to double-hung workable status? Or just the bottom sash? Once you rip off the stops (generally the real problem), which takes 15 seconds, the rest is cake. Really! Another advantage is that you can do one window at a time. Why not do one every weekend? 15 windows (guessing), you’ll be done by May. BTW, the spring bronze works great.

    Agreed with your friend, about the status of your soil. If your getting lots o’ green, but little fruiting, it is most likely that you have too much nitrogen in your soil (relative to other nutrient availability), or you’re not getting enough sunlight. If it’s the former, you can often induce better production by being stingy with the water, or planting crops that gobble nitrogen (squash is the best example). Vegetables are part of the plants reproductive cycle, and if “life is good”, plants tend to divert resources to growth vs. reproduction…but the exact opposite is true when conditions aren’t optimal. Also, you may want to send a soil sample out for testing…you may have highly alkaline soil (likely in Oakland) which doesn’t affect nitrogen but highly affects Phosphorus availability. Also, clay soils “hold on” to Potassium, so some compost will help with that.

    It’s easy to find rotary clotheslines that aren’t made in China…it’s the “affordable” part that’s hard! I recommend http://www.breezecatcher.com
    they used to be made in Ireland, but I don’t see that on their website anymore.

    Do you have an old faucet in your tub? If so, it’s just a washer that needs to be replaced and takes about 3 minutes to do (excepting the time spent at Ace Hardware begging for someone to assist you). And, the reason it’s leaking slowly is because someone in the household is closing the valve too tightly – and crushing the washer in the process. Once it’s replaced, turn until the water stops and NO MORE! They cost less than a buck… so I always buy several.

    RE: greywater, if you’re planning on using laundry water for irrigation, don’t forget to switch to a biocompatible (NOT biodegradable) product, like Oasis. Otherwise, your soil will become so out of whack nothing will grow.

  3. Thanks! Let’s see….yes, we’d heard good things about both Breezecatcher and an Australian version, but after seeing the price tags D. committed to building one. Which probably means we will be ordering one of those sometime next year. 😉

    Our faucet is from the mid-90s, but is the same style I grew up with (one big plastic handle that turns to adjust temperature, single faucet)—is that also a three-minute fix? We’d been thinking it was much more involved (removing faucet to get to washer) but if not, then that goes on the list for next weekend!

    I’d actually been thinking about getting the soil tested, too—we actually grow in fully-raised beds (i.e., barrier between “real” soil and beds) because we live very close to Oakland’s auto district and didn’t want to mess with heavy metal contaminants and the like, but it would still be good to know exactly what’s lacking and what to add. Hopefully our first compost will be ready this summer, too! (I should have added that to the list: a more permanent compost setup. More projects…..) We tried both summer and winter squash last year, and the plants grew and flowered profusely, but only one tiny squash set. Same deal with the eggplants. Argh.

    Thanks for all of the tips! I like the window-a-weekend idea….we’ll be happy if just the bottom sashes work on the windows, I think, since I suspect there’s a lot of paint stripping (and repainting) involved to get more than that. I’ll see how the first one goes and go from there….I’m getting braver about just going after the stops.

  4. Here’s a great video that shows how to fix a faucet: http://www.ehow.com/video_117402_fix-faucet.html In very old faucets the washer setup is a bit different; but once they’re open it is easy to tell.

    I highly recommend getting your soil tested. I think a lot of new gardeners adhere to the “more is better” approach, especially when building raised beds. Your squash problems bring up another issue – it could be a lack of pollination. Bees are the primary pollinators, and bees, as you may know, have been troubled as of late. You might have to pollinate yourself! Try planting a lavender bush near the squash; bees love it. In any event, there’s always tempura fried squash blossoms! Eggplants are self-pollinating. But, they will not set fruit when temperatures drop below 70 degrees or so – and their growth is stunted at 60 degrees! Definitely borderline for our region.

  5. My house (old) didn’t have a dishwasher and would have required me getting electrical and plumbing done (both VERY expensive in this area). My galley type kitchen backs up to the bathroom wall and had a plug and just enough space between sink and that wall to put a Coldspot countertop dishwasher. Bought online for a really good price a couple of years ago, and it’s been in daily use since with no problems. It also can be mounted permanently undercounter (but that would entail electric/plumbing issue again). Clothesline: umbrella types in humid climate (don’t know if that’s your situation) only seems to dry the stuff on the outer cord, and they look terrible when folded up to make use for other things in a small yard. Flip down type used in Ireland and other countries looks a lot better when not in use, stays cleaner and puts more space between lines so all the clothes dry. Just saying.
    Will be looking into the window idea mentioned in your post. Sounds like something I could use.

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