AOE: Water damage and backwater valves

A few years ago my rental home experienced what I like to call an “adverse ownership event”.  In my book, an AOE is the kind of thing that makes you wish you were a renter and not a homeowner.  While I love home ownersihp, there are the occasional incidents that make me wish I could just call a land lord and say “this is your problem”.

My AOE was a sewer line flood of my basement rental unit.  My renter was home and out of nowhere, the sewer line started backing up into his unit.  He called me and I had to get to work dealing with it.  Luckily, he noticed a Roto Rooter truck at the neighbors house, my neighbors had cleared their sewer line and it had jammed further down and blocked my line.  This was luck for me because it meant I could show my insurance company that someone else was responsible which means they’d pay for the damage (more on this in a later post).  The reason my neighbors could affect me like this is because we are on a shared side sewer.  The side sewer is the sewer line that connects your home to the city main line.  It is the homeowners responsibility to maintain the side sewer, in a shared side sewer situation, multiple homes use the same side sewer line.
When the sewer line backed up I ran to the house and got the Roto Rooter guys to clear the blockage all the way down to the sewer main so that the sewer line to my house would start to drain again.  Next up I had to call a water damage company, you’ve seen the commercials on TV, these are the companies that claim to make things like it never happened.  When dealing with sewage, anything the waste water touches has to be removed, all of the dry wall, wood paneling, carpet, etc…
The water damage people removed the carpet, the bottom 6 inches of the wood paneling, and the drywall.  Unfortunately they couldn’t remove the floor tiles because they contained asbestos.  I had a specialist company come out to remove that (thankfully insurance paid!).
The basement unit was extremely old, at least 30-40 years so I used this as an opportunity to redo the basement unit and modernize the kitchen and bathroom.  My main concern at this point was, how do I keep this from happening again?

The answer to this question is pretty straight forward, I have basically two options, I can redo the sewer to my house so that I’m not sharing it with anyone else which would be way too expensive for me to justify, or, I could install a backwater valve.
A backwater valve is a one way valve that lets sewage go out, but prevents it from coming back into the house.  It’s an extremely simple device and not expensive, mine is a $200 valve I bought at  The valve has a plastic gate in it which floats, if water flows back in then it will automatically raise the gate and keep water from going back into the house.  Once this happens, the only danger we have is that someone in the house will run water and fill the pipe.  To prevent this from happening, we attached an alarm to the backwater valve so that we know when the valve has stopped.
When the alarm goes off, the tenants call me and I call someone to clear out the sewer line.  Easy and I sleep much better at night knowing this won’t happen again.
Installing a backwater valve can be tricky, you need to  install it between the point where your house sewage drains and where the  shared line starts.  This usually means digging down fairly deep to install it, in my case, it meant my contractor renting a jackhammer and installing it in my basement.

Fire Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Alarms

Let’s talk smoke alarms.  Smoke alarms are missing in 30% of home fires.  About two-thirds of the deaths in home fires are in homes that either didn’t have a smoke detector (40%) or didn’t have a working smoke detector (23%) (source).

Things everyone should know about smoke alarms:

There are two types of detectors

There are two types of smoke detectors, ionization detectors and photoelectric.  Both types are effective and need to pass the same standards to be UL listed.  Ionization detectors react faster to quick burning, small particle fires while photoelectric respond faster to smoldering fires.  In general, I think it’s a good idea to have a mix of types, new alarms even come with both detector technologies integrated in one unit (example).

Ionization Alarms

The ionization alarms work by using a small amount of radioactive material to ionize the air between a pair of plates.  The ionized particles migrate to the two plates creating a small electrical current.  When smoke enters the ionization chamber, it reduces the amount of ionized particles that can reach the two plates.  This creates a current drop which sets off the alarm.

Photoelectric Alarms

Photoelectric alarms work by shining a light through a tube that looks like a “T”.  The light goes through the “top” of the “T”, when smoke enters the chamber, it causes some of the light to reflect down towards the “base” of the “T”.  A light sensitive sensor on the base of the “T” is triggered when enough light bounces down.

Smoke alarms expire

That’s right, smoke alarms have an expected life of 10 years.  If you pop  the alarm off of the wall it should have a manufacture date.  Smoke alarms are cheap, if you’re past the 10 year date, it’s time to buy new ones.

Where should I put them?

FEMA, and the Washington State Fire Marshall recommend placing smoke alarms “near each sleeping area and on each level of your home.”  In my home, I have one in each bedroom and in every hallway.  The bedroom units are ionizing, the hallway units are dual sensor.

Hard wired or battery operated?

In general, if you have the option for hard wired alarms, that’s a better choice.  Hard wired alarms receive line power as well as have the battery backup.  They also have the advantage of being linked together which means if one goes off, they’ll all go off.  This enhances the odds of safely getting out of the house.  For hard wired alarms, I recommend this one: Kiddie dual sensor wired alarm,  I like it because it’s inexpensive and has both types of detectors.
If, like me, you don’t have the option of wired alarms, there are plenty of sound battery operated ones.  I recommend this one: Kiddie dual sensor battery alarm.  This is the model I have in my hallways, it’s inexpensive and has both types of detectors.

Lithium-Ion batteries

A neat trick you can do is to use a lithium-ion 9-volt battery instead of a normal one in your smoke alarm.  These have a 10 year lifetime.  This doesn’t get you out of regularly testing your battery but it does mean you won’t be woken up in the middle of the night because the battery is dying.  They’re more expensive than the alkaline, but cheaper in the long run.

The test button doesn’t actually test the detector

The test button on the alarm doesn’t actually test the detector, it only tests that the battery is good.  In order to test the actual functionality of the alarm safely, you need a product like “Smoke Test“.  DO NOT USE A FIRE TO TEST YOUR ALARM.  Don’t be an idiot, think of how stupid you’ll feel if you burn your house down trying to test your alarm.

What if I can’t afford a

 smoke alarm?

In the city of Seattle and many other cities, the Fire Department will provide you with a smoke detector if you are unable to afford one.  Please contact your local fire department for more information.

What about Carbon Monoxide (CO)?

Carbon Monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that is toxic.  Because it’s impossible to detect by us mortals, it’s often called the “silent killer”.  According to the CDC, “For the period 1999–2004, an average of 439 persons died annually from unintentional, non–fire-related CO poisoning (range: 400 in 1999 to 473 in 2003)”.  
Carbon monoxide is a by product of combustion and CO poisoning is often a result of a poorly running or poorly ventilated furnace or other fire inside the house.  Because we can’t detect it naturally, a CO alarm is a must for any home that has gas or oil powered appliances.  I think every home should have one on each floor, regardless of heat source.
CO alarms are also relatively inexpensive, in the $20 range.

Induction vs. Gas: Picking a range

As part of our remodel, we get to pick new appliances.  We currently have an electric glass top and it’s awful.  Slow response time and imprecise heat control.  When looking at appliances for the new kitchen I knew I wanted anything other than an electric range.  There are two heating technologies worth looking at when picking a new range: Gas and Induction.

Gas Burner (Wikipedia)

People have been cooking with gas since the 1820s, it’s about as simple as it gets: gas burns, burning gas makes heat, heat cooks food.  Not a whole lot has changed in gas ranges since the 1820s, the mechanics are basically the same: gas flows through a valve into a burner which disperses the gas and burns it in a pattern.  Since the 1820s the ranges have gotten more efficient and safer, we have electric igniters, safety valves and smarter burner designs.  Gas is also the way most restaurants cook.  My last house had a gas range and I really miss it.

Induction in action (GE)

Induction heats in a way that’s completely different from the traditional electric or gas range.  Induction heats by inducing heat in the cooking vessel rather than transferring heat to the cooking vessel.  In induction cooking, the pot itself generates the heat!  Induction works by using a high power electromagnet in the hob (the equivalent of a burner on a gas range) induces heat in the pan.

Inside of an induction hob (Wikipedia)

Induction is very responsive, heats up quickly, cools down quickly and since it only generates heat in the pan is super efficient.  The picture at the top of this section is of an induction hob that’s not melting ice while boiling water.  Induction is very popular in Europe and Asia and is developing quite the following in the US.  One of the odd limitations of induction is that it requires pans to have some iron content.  This is because induction only works with pans that respond to magnets.  In my case this isn’t a big deal, all of my pans are either All-Clad or some form of cast iron (I’ll have a future post on cookware).

Which one?
In looking for a new range, I had a few requirements:

  1. Responsive – Quick to heat, quick to cool.
  2. High Heat – We do a lot of searing, so I need to be able to get a pan really hot. 
  3. Reliable – Nobody likes calling a service company.
I bought a portable induction hob to try induction out.  Turns out I love it.  It’s super responsive, as I turn the knob, heat goes up and when I turn the knob down, so does the heat.  I’m able to quickly go from bringing something to a boil to a light simmer.
Gas is also very responsive, gas ranges have infinite controls.  Turn the knob up, more gas comes out, turn the knob down less gas comes out.  I had a gas range in my previous house and I loved the responsiveness of it.
High Heat
People rave about how fast induction causes water to boil but I’m going to be living with this decision for at least 10 years so I wanted something more than anecdotal evidence.  So let’s do some math:
Gas range power is measured in BTU/hr while induction ranges are measured in Watts.  Thankfully, we can convert from one to another.  
I know that more BTU means more power so I went looking for the most powerful gas range I could find.  My search brought me to the Capital Culinarian which has 23,000 BTU burners.  To put that in perspective, I looked at a random GE range and it had a 15,000 BTU “power boil” burner, making the Capital substantially more powerful.  Just for fun, we’ll run the math on the GE range too.
When I mean run the math, I mean ask Wolfram Alpha.  Wolfram says that 23,000 BTU/hr is equivalent to 6,741 Watts.  Wolfram also says that 15,000 BTU/hr is the same as 4,396 Watts.
The most powerful induction cook top I could find had a boost mode that would output up to 4,600 Watts.  It’s a Thermador and it can do that in “boost” mode, where it steals energy from the other burners.  A normal burner is around 2,600 Watts.
So on the surface, the gas range is clearly much more powerful right?
WRONG!  Induction is much more efficient than gas at transferring heat, so we can’t just compare the straight up wattage, we have to account for the efficiency differences.
According to the US Department of Energy, induction is 84% efficient.  Gas ranges are a measly 39.9% efficient.
So now we need to adjust for efficiency: 
Gas (High Power Range): 6,741Watts * 39.9% = 2,690 Watts.
Gas (Normal Range): 4,396 Watts * 39.9% = 1,754 Watts.
Induction (High Power): 4,600 Watts * 84% = 3,864 Watts.
Induction (Normal Power): 2,600 Watts * 84% = 2,184 Watts.
Induction in boost mode blows the gas away and a “normal” induction range is more powerful than a “normal” gas range.

Induction is clearly more powerful, but I think it’s a moot victory.  I’m looking at a high end gas range or a high end induction and I don’t think it matters at that level which is more powerful.
This is a tough one.  I couldn’t find any data I’d really trust on reliability but I will say that the gas ranges I’m looking at have minimal electronics and user serviceable parts.  From a reliability stand point, there’s almost nothing to break on a Blue Star or Capital.
The induction cook tops are full of electronics which means more that can break.
I think the gas range wins this one, but again, I don’t have any real data on this and it bugs me that I couldn’t find any.
I’m going with a gas range for a couple of reasons:  I like the reliability aspects, and while this may sound silly, I want knobs and not buttons.  The only induction range I could find that has knobs instead of buttons is made by viking and would cost me more than a gas range.  Further, I like the flexibility of gas, while I don’t have any aluminum pans right now, i do have a round bottom wok which wouldn’t work very well on an induction range.  
If my house didn’t have gas plumbed to it already, or if cost were a more significant factor, I think I’d choose induction and be very happy with it.

I’m a paint snob

I’ll admit it, I’m a paint snob.  I don’t like using cheap paint and I have favorite brands.  I enjoy painting, it’s easy mindless work that I find rewarding.  Adding color to a room through paint is one of the easiest ways to drastically change the way a room looks and feels.  It’s also one of the few remodeling tasks I really don’t mind doing myself.

I hate working with cheap paint, it smells bad, it’s runny and you end up working twice as hard to get the same look.  I believe in using nice paint, I think it lasts longer and more importantly it goes on easier.  Nicer paint is thicker and adheres to the wall better.  When painting a friends house we tried a bucket of Costco paint (once upon a time Costco in Tukwilla sold paint).  It was terrible, it would actually run down the walls and we’d have to quickly roll out the drips.

My favorite paint is Devine Color.  The paint is thick, doesn’t smell and comes in a great set of colors.  It’s also a Zero-VOC paint.  The downside: it’s expensive, last time I bought some it was $54 a gallon.  They’re also the only company I know of that charges for the color samples.  That’s right, they charge $35 for the sample kit, but instead of getting printed samples, you get actual samples of dried paint arranged in color palettes that all match.

When it comes to ceilings, I’m a big fan of Benjamin Moore Muresco Ceiling White.  It sounds silly but it makes a difference.  The BM Ceiling White is a very flat white that makes the room look bigger and gives the room a nice character.  The Ceiling White is a Low VOC paint at less than 50 grams per liter (the max to be “Low VOC” is 250 g/L).

VOC or Volatile Organic Compounds are a family of chemicals that give off fumes which can lead to unpleasant things.  I’m not an expert, nor do I pretend to be but you can learn more here:

The walls of my house are mostly Divine Sand with Divine Green Tea as an accent. The bedrooms are a mix of Divine Buffalo and Divine Siamese.  I don’t like white walls so I don’t have any.

I’m a firm believer in a coat of primer and two coats of top coat.  Ceilings, walls, trim, doesn’t matter.  Everything gets a coat of primer and two coats of paint.  Primer is something I don’t care a whole lot about, I generally use one of the nicer grades at the big box stores.  Primer is an undercoat that ensures the top coat (the color) adheres well to the wall.  Primer also helps hide the color that’s already on the wall.

I’ll talk about how I paint in a later post.  The way I see it, I’m saving so much money by doing the painting myself that I’ll happily spend more on supplies if it makes my life easier or the project go faster.