Construction: Home Automation

How I’ve embraced the Internet of Things.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

One of the best things about designing and building your own home is the ability to include features that are fully customized for your own individual needs. I built my home with home automation in mind, but what I still find surprising as I look back on what I’ve done is how easy it is to retrofit a home with automation features.

I thought it was time for me share some of what I’ve learned while setting up the home automation features of my home. This is not intended to provide readers with everything they need to know to set up their own system. Instead, it’s an overview of what I’ve done and why and what it’s cost me. As you’ll discover, it’s neither difficult nor expensive to get started.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re looking for a “buyer’s guide” or detailed analysis of what’s available or even step-by-step instructions for setting up a system or devices, you won’t find it here. This is just an overview of what I did and why I did it. Use it to get some ideas for your system or needs.

The System

Wink App
The main screen of the Wink app on my iPhone. Each icon represents a type of device; tap the icon to access the actual devices.

Let me start by explaining what I wanted from my home automation setup.

I was very interested in setting up certain things that could be turned on or off when I wasn’t home. For example, the very first thing I thought about was having floodlights on my deck that shined down onto the concrete driveway where I land my helicopter. Although I very rarely fly after dark, if I was out flying and got delayed until after nightfall, I wanted the ability to turn on the floodlights from my helicopter so I could clearly see where I had to land without relying on my landing lights.

So in this example, I have a few components. On one side are the actual floodlights and the light switch that turns them on and off. On the other side is the Internet and my mobile device (smartphone) that communicates with it. What I needed was something in between the two sides — a device that made it possible for my phone to talk to the light fixtures.

That’s where the home automation system comes into play. It forms a sort of bridge between devices and a smartphone. It connects those devices to the Internet so your phone can talk to them.

When I began looking into this — about two years ago now — there were already quite a few options. There are even more now. I needed a system that met the following requirements:

  • Affordable. I’m not rich and I don’t want to pump a bunch of money into a system — especially one that might be out of date in a few short years.
  • Well supported. I wanted a system that had been around for a while, seemed to have good customer service, and looked as if it would be around for a while longer. That ruled out any brand new providers or ones that didn’t seem to add many new devices.
  • Wide variety of devices. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being able to connect the most things to the system? Well, I didn’t need a lot of things, but I did need certain types of things.

I also discovered that different systems used different communication protocols. For example, Wink, which is the one I wound up with, supports ZigBee and Z-Wave enabled devices. So any device that supports these two protocols should work with Wink. But a device that doesn’t support them might not be supported by Wink. I really can’t explain it any better than that. (And you can learn the difference between these two protocols here.) My advice: make sure the devices you want to use are supported by the system you select before you install a system. While there’s nothing stopping you from having multiple systems, wouldn’t you rather have just one?

Wink Hub
The original Wink Hub connects wirelessly to my network.

I chose Wink because it met all my criteria and was available for sale in Home Depot, which is where I bought almost everything to complete the living space in my home. Wink offered two (now three) main communication devices: the Hub, which is a sort of router with no visible interface, and the Relay, which is a touchscreen device you’d mount on the wall. The Hub was cheaper and I really didn’t see the benefit of a touchscreen, especially when I’d likely use my phone to interact with the system. There are now two different hubs, but I don’t see enough benefit in the new version (Hub 2) to make it worth upgrading. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)

I should make one thing clear: some devices require the Hub (or Relay) while others don’t. For example, my Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors require the Hub but my Ring video doorbell does not.

Once the whole thing is set up, you add devices to the Wink app. You can then control them in a variety of ways as I discuss here.

The Floodlights

Remember my example with the floodlights on my deck and driveway? That’s actually the first component I installed.

I wired the light fixtures like any other fixtures: two fixtures each having two bulbs with their wires coming together to one switch. These were standard Home Depot fixtures and floodlight bulbs; nothing special.

Leviton Smart Switch
This light switch looks like any other Decora switch, but it does not toggle.

What’s special was the wall switch. I bought a Leviton DZS15-1BZ Decora switch. (All my living space light switches are Decora style.) The back side of the switch is a lot bulkier than a regular light switch, but that’s because it has wifi capabilities built into it. It connects to the wires like any other light switch so I didn’t have any trouble installing it. I should mention here that I can switch it out any time I like — or add other ones just like it. My point: you can retrofit to add this at any time.

Once it was wired up and I’d set up my Wink hub, I followed the instructions in the Wink app on my phone to add the switch as a device. Voila! A light switch I could turn on or off or monitor from anywhere I had an Internet connection. Yes, including my helicopter in flight. I used it not long after installation when I returned from a charter flight after nightfall. It was very cool to see my deck lights turn on as I was flying across the river to my home.

And yes, it works like a wall switch, too, although it doesn’t toggle. Tap to turn it on, tap to turn it off.

Door Sensors

Security, for Peace of Mind

Reading about my the security features of my home automation system, you might get the idea that I’m paranoid. Am I? I’d like to think that I’m not. I’d like to think that I’m just interested in keeping an eye on things, especially when I’m not home.

During my off season, which is seven months out of the year, I travel quite a bit. Even two of the months I’m “working,” I’m based part of that time in California. So although I have a very reliable house-sitter (with a Doberman!) and neighbors who keep an eye on things during my long trips away from home, the house is empty almost as much as it’s occupied. While crime is not an issue where I live, it is somewhat remote. (My city-dwelling friends would argue that I live in the middle of nowhere.) It just seems to make sense to install features to keep an eye on things when I can’t be around to watch them myself.

Another thing I set up very early on were the door sensors. I bought four Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors, which are now marketed as Quirky Tripper Smart Security Trigger. These are two-piece units that you can place on doors or windows.

I used them on doors. One piece goes on the door itself and the other piece goes on the door frame so it lines up with the other piece when the door is closed. They don’t have to touch. When the door is opened, the sensor triggers. I set this up so it would send me an alert on my phone any time the door opened. I can also check the app from anywhere to see if the door is open or closed. Each door has a name, so I always know which one was opened.

Obviously, I did this for security reasons. I’m the only person who lives here. If a door opens and I didn’t open it, I want to know about it.

Motion Sensors

Motion Sensor
I use motion sensors like this to monitor activity around my shop and garage.

My security setup also includes motion sensors. I use the GoControl Z-Wave PIT Motion Detector, which has a built-in temperature sensor.

Like the door sensors, the motion sensor also works with Wink and will alert me when it senses motion. It’s very sensitive — it can pick up my 7-pound dog, Penny, and has, in the past, sensed a mouse.

Thermostat

Thermostat
This is the one I have. It was installed about a year and half ago; they have a lot more spiffy looking ones now, but I can’t imagine that they offer more features.

When the HVAC guys got around to finishing up my heat pump system — that gives me what we used to call “central air” as well as heat — I made sure they installed a wifi enabled Honeywell thermostat. This thermostat is programmable with up to four time periods a day and up to seven different programs a week. Since my life is not “scheduled,” I have it set up for the same programming each day and fine-tune it when I’m around or leave.

Like the other items I’ve listed so far, this one works with my Wink app. But it also has its own app that can be used independently of Wink. I’ve played around with both and have decided that I prefer the Honeywell app, so that’s what I use.

Thermostat
Adjust the thermostat while still lounging in bed? Check.

Because it’s wifi enabled, I can control it from anywhere with an Internet connection. So yes, I can adjust the thermostat while I’m still lying in bed. But I can also adjust it from SeaTac, when I want to bring the heat (or air conditioning) back to a comfortable temperature before I get home from a trip. Likewise, I can set it to a more economical temperature while I’m away, if I forgot to adjust it before leaving. And I can check the temperature at any time to make sure the system is working right. It has alert capabilities, too, as you might imagine, but I don’t use them.

Smart Plugs

Because not all lights or appliances have wall switches, there are smart plugs. A smart plug is a wifi enabled outlet that you can plug into any outlet. You then plug an appliance into it — a lamp, a coffee maker, a neon sign — and turn that item on. When the plug is turned on, it sends power to the appliance and it goes on.

Smart Plug
Smart plugs like this one make it easy to automate any device.

I bought iHome Smart Plugs to play with this feature. The first one I set up was to be able to turn on a neon sign I bought in Quartzite last year. I hung the sign on the rail for my loft, far out of reach. With the signed plugged into the smart plug, I can turn it on from my phone. What’s really cool, however, is that these smart plugs also work with Apple’s HomeKit and Siri, so I can turn the light on or off with a voice command. (It’s a real hit when I have friends over for dinner or drinks.)


Frivolous? Guilty.

I also used one of these to help circulate air in my loft. Because two of my HVAC vents are up on my loft, the warm (or cool) air sometimes gets “stuck” up there, especially on very warm or very cold days. I set up a fan and attached it to one of these smart plugs, then set up a schedule for the plug to turn on in the morning and turn off in the evening. This made it possible to get the air circulation I wanted without having to climb the ladder to the loft to turn the fan on or off.

So yes, the plug, when used with my Wink system, can be programmed to turn on or off at any time. And that schedule can be overridden at any time. From any place. Kind of cool, no?

Video Doorbell

One of the toughest things I had to do when wiring my home was to find and install a hardwired doorbell. Why? Because people apparently don’t use hardwired doorbells anymore. They seem to prefer wireless ones that have a push button outside and a door chime somewhere inside. But I wanted a wired one and I finally found the basic one I wanted. And then I had to figure out how to get the silly thing properly installed so I had electrical power on the wall outside my front door. (Hint: when you switch the wires, the doorbell rings continuously.)

Ring Doorbell
It was not easy mounting this on a corrugated metal surface, but I managed and it isn’t going anywhere without my building attached.

Why did I want power there? Because I knew that at some time in the future, I was going to install a video doorbell. It took a while to find the one I wanted, but I eventually wound up with a Ring doorbell. This is a really cool device. It combines the features of a regular doorbell — push the button and the chime I’d already installed chimes — with a video camera, intercom system, and motion sensor. Basically, if someone drives (or walks) up to my home, I get an alert. I can then use the video camera to see who it is and start a conversation with them — even if they don’t ring the bell.

And it really does work! I recently answered the door and chatted with the person standing there — who I could see — while I was driving my truck in town.

Although Ring can connect to Wink, it’s much better when used with its own app, which lets you configure it and interact with it. And this is the only device I pay a subscription for: I signed up for the cloud recording feature so that every time Ring senses motion, a video clip is automatically stored on Ring’s server for future reference. (Needless to say, I have many recordings of me letting Penny the Tiny Dog out to do her business.

The Router

Right around this time, I started having trouble with my Internet connection.

I get all my television service via Internet streaming with Roku. After installing Ring, I noticed that television shows would often get interrupted and need to reconnect to continue streaming. It was very annoying.

Rural Fiber Rocks
Rural fiber rocks.

At first, I didn’t make the connection between the Ring installation and the Roku problem. I did a speed check and saw that I still had the wicked fast Internet service I always had. After restarting the router and anything else I could think of and the problem not going away, I figured that the junky router my ISP had provided had simply gone bad. So I did the lazy web thing and got on Facebook to ask my friends if they could recommend a router. During the conversation that ensued, I got a router education and discovered that several of the devices I was installing — the Wink hub, Ring, the thermostat, the cameras (see below) — were talking directly to my router, along with my desktop computer, laptop, iPads, iPhone, and Roku. The router couldn’t handle the traffic and was partially shutting down when I watched TV.

ASUS Router
The ASUS router I bought to replace my crappy ISP-provided one. Wow! What a difference!

My friend Tom, who is extremely knowledgeable about these things, recommended a specific model of ASUS router. It was well over $200 — a lot more than I wanted to spend on a router. But I understood that I needed more capacity and I also now understood how much each model could handle. So I settled on an ASUS RT-AC66U Dual Band router. This would give me a 2.4GHz network like I already had plus a 5GHz network and even a guest network. I set it up with the home automation devices on the 2.4GHz network and my other devices, including the Roku, on the 5GHz network. And I plugged my desktop mac directly into one of its four Ethernet ports, thus removing it entirely from the wifi network. (I don’t know why I didn’t do that in when I set up my old router; they’re sitting right next to each other.)

What I like about this router is how easy it is to set up and monitor connected devices. While I assume my old router had some of this capability, this one just seems to make it more obvious. And it handles my current load — about 20 devices — with ease. No more Roku streaming problems!

Garage Doors

My home has four car garages, each with its own door. When I wired the garage, I included outlets over each garage bay for the future installation of garage door openers. But because I didn’t need garage door openers, I didn’t get them installed right away.

I finally got around to it this past June. The installer offered me three options ranging from $325/door to $425/door. (Do the math on four doors: ouch!) All three options were for LiftMaster doors — that’s the professionally installed version of Chamberlain.

Internet Gateway
Smaller than a deck of cards, this device plugs right into my router and makes my garage doors accessible from my iPhone.

I did some research and learned that although all three options were wifi enabled, the most expensive one (model 8550W) had a built-in “router” of sorts and was all ready to be connected to the LiftMaster app. But the other two models could be added to the app with the purchase of a single small device called an Internet gateway. The differences between those two models was chain (noisy) vs. belt (quieter) drive. As I told the installer, if my garage door opens and I’m not the one opening it, I want to hear it. So I went with the cheapest of the three models (model 8365) and spent an extra $50 for the Internet gateway, which I installed myself by simply plugging it into a wall socket and my new router.

LiftMaster
The LiftMaster app shows a status screen for each garage door, which I can name. Tap the picture of the garage door to open or close it. (Looks like my Honda is being neglected again.)

(And no, I was not about to install the garage door openers myself, even to save a few hundred bucks. There really is a limit to my DIY skills.)

I absolutely love my smart garage doors. I can open or close them from anywhere, check the status (is a specific door open or closed?), get an alert when one opens, and even set up a robot to check the status of the doors at a specific time of day and automatically close them all — in case I forget to close them myself. Of course, they all do have the usual remote controls — one for each vehicle that lives there — and a central control area just inside the door that leads from my entrance vestibule to my garage. And there’s even a keypad outside one of the doors that, when the proper code is entered, will open a specific door or close them all.

The only thing that would make the setup any better is if the garage door openers washed the cars while they were sitting idle in the garage.

Smoke/CO Detectors

When I first started working on the inside of my living space, I was excited to buy a pair of Kidde Wink-compatible smoke detectors. To me, this was the best of all worlds: a system of smoke/carbon monoxide detectors that would “talk” to each other and alert me about hazards no matter where I was.

Trouble was, the smoke detectors were battery operated and they didn’t have a hardwired version. The building code requires hardwired smoke detectors. So I had to buy the old fashioned kind and install those to meet building codes.

Once I got my Certificate of Occupancy, however, I could make changes. I didn’t remove the approved smoke detectors. Why would I? They were already bought, paid for, and installed. Instead, I just added the two smoke detectors to my home: one in the garage (where I honestly think everyone should have one) and one up on my loft. I then connected them to each other wirelessly and tested them. Not only did they both go off, but they gave me the alert I was hoping to get on my phone.

Smart Bulbs

Smart Bulb
GE Link smart bulbs put wifi into the base of a light bulb.

My most recent automation acquisition was a pair of GE Link light bulbs. These are energy saving LED lightbulbs that are wifi enabled. They can be added to my Wink app like the smart plugs or light switches.

The benefit of using a smart bulb instead of connecting the light fixture to a smart plug is that you can easily control the bulb manually. If you use a smart plug between the wall and the lamp, if the plug is disabled, there’s no power to the lamp. With a smart bulb, there’s always power to the lamp; it’s the switch on the lamp or the bulb itself that controls whether there’s light.

Like the smart switches, smart bulbs can be controlled with the app or on a schedule. They make it very easy to set up light timers on any kind of light.

Interconnectivity

One thing I didn’t mention here is that devices accessible through my Wink system can talk to each other and work together. This is done through the creation of “robots.”

For example, I can have a robot that monitors my Ring doorbell between sunset and sunrise and turns on my deck light if it senses motion. (I already have the deck light monitoring when I come home so it turns on the light when I pull into my driveway.)

While an example like this is great, Wink doesn’t have the ability to set times for an activity to end after a robot started it. So if it did turn on the deck light, it would stay on until either I turned it off or another robot did. I’ve put in a feature request to Wink to add timer-based functionality — for example, turn the light on for 15 minutes.

Cameras

I didn’t talk about my live video cameras, mostly because I don’t consider them part of my home automation system and they don’t work with Wink or any other system. I have three different cameras (not including the one in Ring and my weather cam), one of which was installed before my home was built! I keep trying new ones but don’t seem to find one I really like. At this point, I have enough of them. They provide additional security and a way to keep an eye on my home when I’m not around.

Suppose I’m on a day trip out of town somewhere and I get a motion sensor alert. I can use the cameras to see whether there’s someone around who shouldn’t be. If there is, I can use one of the cameras to talk to that person if I want to.

Tip of the Iceberg

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as capabilities are concerned. There are automatic watering systems, sensors for all kinds of things, even a device that tells you when it’s time to buy eggs.

And I’m sure I’ll be expanding my little system as time goes on — although I can keep track of my egg supply without a computer.

Have you set up any home automation at your place? If so, please do take a few moments to share your experience or advice with readers. My experience is limited to what’s here. You can add value to this post by sharing what you know with others.

Construction: The Windowsills

Something a little different for a different kind of home.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I’ve been living in my new home for about a year and a half now and although I’ve had my Certificate of Occupancy since this past spring, I’m still not quite done with the finishing touches. The windowsills were one of the projects I recently finished. I documented my work with video as I finished up.

The Backstory

Most people have their homes built by builders who are managed by a general contractors. At the end of the project, the general contractor hands over a set of keys to a finished home. For my home, I was the general contractor. Whatever I didn’t hire someone else to do, I had to do myself. While this saved me a bunch of money, what’s better is that it gave me an opportunity to add custom design elements that most general contractors couldn’t be bothered with. My windowsills are a very good example of this.

My building is a “pole building” built with post and beam construction. That means the building’s frame literally hangs on a series of thick, pressure-treated 6×8 or 8×8 posts. When the framers came to frame the inside of my living space, I had two options: frame just the inside walls and allow those wooden posts to appear on inside walls or frame the entire living space so the drywall would hide those posts. The posts weren’t very attractive, so I chose to hide them. This means that they had to frame a secondary wall inside the outer wall, creating a relatively wide space between the inner and outer walls. This was great for insulation purposes — I could fit much thicker insulation in that wall than was required by building codes. But it also left deep wells at each window.

Framed Windows
This photo was shot back on December 29, 2014 when I was working on interior wiring. It’s a pretty good illustration of how the framers framed my interior walls inside my building shell. This is my living room; my TV is currently in that corner.

Insulated Wall
This is one of my living room windows after the insulation was put in place in mid January 2015.

When the drywall guys came, I had two choices. I could have them drywall the entire window well, including the bottom part, or I could leave the bottom part unframed and install wooden windowsills later on. I thought back to my old home, which used the first method for its relatively shallow window wells. When windows were left open in the rain or windows leaked — which was a problem with one window not long after we bought the home — the drywall windowsill was damaged and required a professional drywall guy to patch. I wanted to avoid that, so I went with installing wooden window sills later on. I should mention that my four clearstory windows, which are high on my south-facing walls, do have finished drywall window sills. But they’re rarely opened so I’m not worried about damage.

Drywalled and Painted
Here’s one of my living room windows on February 15, 2015, not long after being drywalled and painted. (If you’re interested in seeing what the drywall work looked like as it was being done, be sure to check out the walkthrough video in this blog post. And this blog post includes a video of my kitchen, after installation but before the windowsills were installed.)

So this was what I was left with. Ugly, huh?

The Solution

My first attempt at wooden windowsills used 1×10 and 1×12 lumber that I cut to fit. This turned out to be a difficult job, mostly because the framer (and the dry wall guy) hadn’t created uniformly sized or shaped window wells. Getting the wood to fit perfectly and look good was a nightmare and, as you might expect, I procrastinated about getting the job done. When I finally did it, it looked like crap — at least in my opinion. I started regretting the wooden windowsill decision.

First attempt at a windowsill
This is my first attempt at a windowsill back in March 2015 — it’s the original one in my office area. There were no right angles in the window wells, making cutting the wood to fit perfectly nearly impossible.

Time went on. I cut wooden planks to fit most of the window wells as best as I could. I didn’t like the way it looked, but it looked a lot better than nothing at all.

More time passed. Lots of time. My friend Don built a custom wood cap out of driftwood logs for my stairwell that got rave reviews from everyone who saw it. I asked him to build some furniture for my living room: end tables, a TV table, and a coffee table. He used reclaimed wood and left natural edges. He finished everything with tung oil. They looked great; you can see them in a video in this blog post. He told me about some logs he’d had planed into planks. I talked to him about my windowsills. He asked me how many planks I needed. I told him eight — one for each of my great room windows. He came by one day and delivered 8 raw planks of wood.That was sometime in the autumn of 2015; I don’t know the exact date because I don’t have a photo of the delivered stack of wood, which lay across a pair of sawhorses in my garage. For months.

The trouble was, I didn’t know what to do with the wood. So when Don asked me this past summer how the project was going, I told him I was waiting for his help. So he set a date in July and when that date rolled around, we got to work.

The Job

Don did the first two windowsills for me, start to finish, while I watched and learned.

Wood Plank
A typical wood plank. We began working it by closing up cracks, then cutting off a live edge for the back of the windowsill, trimming its length, and shaping its front edge.

Repaired crack
One of the cracks after gluing it. After scraping away the solid foam and sanding it, the crack disappeared.

The process began with repairing cracks in each piece of wood. The wood had arrived wet and had been stacked horizontally on sawhorses with each row of planks separated by some scrap lumber so they could dry. Cracks along the grain had formed in some of the logs. Don wasn’t concerned. He’d already developed a workable solution for this problem, which he encountered quite often. We wet down both sides of the crack, filled it with Gorilla Glue, and then used clamps to close up and hold the cracks together. Overnight, the glue would set, leaving orangish solidified foam on the outside, That would be scraped away and sanded down with the plank later in the process.

Then we needed to match a wood plank to a window. The planks were all longer than they needed to be, but they came in two basic widths. The wide ones needed to be used for the five north-facing windows while the narrower ones could be used for the east-facing windows, which weren’t quite as deep. We had to pick which side should be the top and which edge should be on the outside, facing the room.

Then Don made a template out of cardboard pieces for a specific window. This had the exact length, including the weird angles, and the depth, including the outer edge. We’d bring that downstairs and he’d lay it on the chosen plank, outline where he needed to cut. Then, using a circular saw, he’d cut off one live edge of the wood to form a straight back edge. He’d also trim the length of the plank and then, using the circular saw and a handsaw, cut the shape of the front with an overhang past the edge of the windowsill area.

Then we’d go back upstairs to see if it fit. And back downstairs to make some adjustments. And back upstairs to see if it fit. Repeat as necessary. When Don was satisfied, we came back downstairs to finish the live edge. That required using a special cutting tool to carve away the bark and shape the exposed edge of the wood. This is where it got artistic and Don did a fine job (as I expected). Finally, he used an orbital sander to sand the top and outer edges of the plank.

When it was just the way he wanted it, we brought it back upstairs, fit it into place one more time to be sure, and then removed it. Rather than use screws or pegs to affix it into place, he took out his trusty Gorilla Glue and spray bottle, moistened the wood, applied glue to both the unfinished windowsill area and the bottom side of the new windowsill, and slipped it back into place. We used a combinations of rags for padding and lengths of wood to hold the windowsills down until the glue could cure — at least 12 hours.

Don did two of these that first day. I paid close attention. He came back the next day and did the rough cuts for a few more, leaving all the finish work to me. A week later, he dd the last two. I paid him for the wood and his time. The rest was up to me.

Two Windowsills
This photo shows two of my windowsills. The one on the left was completely finished and installed by Don. All it needed was to be oiled. The one on the right is cut to size but not finished. I had to carve out the live edge (removing the bark) and sand it down before gluing it into place.

With the window framing exposed again — we’d taken off my makeshift windowsills — I was motivated to finish up. So although I had a bunch of other stuff going on — including the end of cherry season and a vacation in my new truck camper — I went to work at it and eventually got it all finished up. Along the way, I shot some video clips of the work I had to do. I put them all together in this video, so folks could get an idea of what had to be done. It’s a little long, but it covers all the steps I took.

By the way, I’m finding that creating and saving these videos in my blog is a great way for me (and others) to look back on the progress I’ve made in building my home. As I wrote this blog post, I stopped to watch some of the videos I linked to here. It was not only great tp see things partially done again, but interesting to hear my narration of plans — some of which changed over time. What a great way to document the evolution of this challenging and lengthy project!

Home Tour, 8-Oct-16

Another look at my work-in-progress home.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I had a friend I hadn’t seen for about a year come over for dinner on Saturday night. It was a good thing he came. I had a few little projects that I’d been putting off for two long — the trim around my bathroom door being the biggest one — and knowing he was coming motivated me to finish them. It also motivated me to clean the place up and throw away a lot of the junk that had been accumulating. I am the queen of clutter and I’m really working hard to control it.

My Red Sofa
I get very serious when I clean. I even took out the leather cleaner and wiped down my living room sofa.

Once my home was all spiffed up, I figured I’d take the opportunity to do a quick video tour. I’ve been videoing various parts of my new home construction and it’s kind of neat to go back through my archive and see where I was at various points.

My living space is about 95% done at this point. I have my Certificate of Occupancy — I got it last spring — so there’s nothing left to get inspected. There are three big finishing projects, though:

  • Build a ladder to my loft. I already have all the wood and hardware. I just have to stop procrastinating and get the job done.
  • Finish the tile around my shower stall. Again, I have most of the materials I need. I just absolutely detest working with tile. So I procrastinate.
  • Paint and trim the stairs. I’m going with paint because it’s durable and cheap. But I still have to sand the steps, paint them, and then add trim along the sides.

I also have some “baseboard” trim work to do. I’m using quarter round to keep it simple. There’s not much left to do. I might knock it off Monday afternoon.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy.

Construction: The Garage Shelves

It was a mess. Now it’s not.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I need to start by reminding readers that I have a very large garage. The 60 x 48 footprint is split into a four car garage (24 x 48), a double-wide RV garage (24 x 48), and a shop/general storage area (12 x 48). If you’re doing math, that’s 2880 square feet.

Of garage.

Woody Says
My friend Woody wrote this on my big white board during my moving party back in 2014. He wasn’t kidding.

The great thing about a big garage is that there’s plenty of space to store stuff. The bad thing about a big garage is that there’s plenty of space to store stuff.

I’m doing what I can to keep the garage organized, but even though most things have their place, that place isn’t exactly neat and orderly.

It Started with the Bungee Cords

The other day, I decided to clean up and sort out my bungee cords and ratchet tie downs — you wouldn’t believe how many I have because even I’m having trouble believing it.

I’d been racking my brains on a solution that would enable me to hang them neatly in order of size in a place that was out of the way. That’s when I remembered the curtain rods. When I lived in my Arizona house, I’d bought a few really nice ones. I wasn’t about to leave them behind — not even with shrimp stuffed in them (look it up) — so I packed them. Of course, I don’t have curtains on my windows here so I don’t need curtain rods. They remained wrapped up in bubble wrap in a corner of the garage.

Bungees
Some of my bungees and tie downs and ropes after putting up the curtain rod. I found a bunch more here, there, and everywhere the next day. The horizontal wooden beams are called girts, by the way. I live in a post & beam building. Beyond the vapor barrier is the metal exterior of my building. The car garage is not insulated.

I unwrapped the living room rod and grabbed a bungee cord. Sure enough, its hook fit neatly over the narrow black rod. A half hour later, the rod was hung on one of the girts in my Jeep garage — each garage bay is assigned a vehicle; the Jeep is in the first bay — and I was taking great joy in arranging my bungee cords and ratchet tie-downs. And ropes and straps.

The Shelves Came Next

I started thinking about how stupid it was to have all that dead space right below the bungee cords. How about a couple of shelves?

Big Shelves
This was the first set of shelves I built for the garage. (Tiny dog for scale.) They’re free-standing and very heavy duty. And just plain heavy. I made two more shorter sets and a workbench with two shelves based on the same design. The RV garage/shop is insulated.

I should mention here that I’ve created shelves elsewhere in my garage. The biggest project was a set 8 feet long and 8 feet tall made of 5/8 plywood and 2 x4 lumber. It was quite a chore to build them, which I did with them lying down on the floor. When I tried to stand them up, I couldn’t. I had to wait for a friend to come by and lure him down into the garage — which was about as difficult as it sounds. (Men love my garage.)

I had limited space in the car garages, though. After all, I had to fit the cars in. Each garage bay is about 12 feet wide. There aren’t any walls between them — it’s one big open space. I knew I could fit shelves that were about 12 inches deep. (The big ones are 24 inches deep.) And I realized that I could build them in place, right against the wall, using the tops of the girts as supports for the shelves. That would save another inch and a half because each shelf could go right up against the exterior metal walls.

So I went to Home Depot and bought a sheet of about 1/2 inch plywood. While I was there, I saw a really nice piece of sanded 1/2 inch plywood that was in the cull pile because of a nasty scratch in one corner. But 70% off? A $35 sheet of wood for $10? No brainer! I brought both pieces over to the big wood cutter and got a Home Depot guy to cut each of them into 8 foot x 1 foot strips. Then I picked up a few 2x4s, along with some very nice 2×3 cull pieces and a long 2×4 cull piece. I don’t see anything wrong with using cull lumber to build shelves in a garage.

Did I mention that I also returned a bunch of lumber I’d bought about a year before but never used? The return completely covered the cost of the new lumber, as well as some additional screws and other supplies I needed in my shop. I threw everything into the back of the pickup, hung a red flag on the long 2×4, ran a few errands, and went home to make dinner with a friend.

The next morning, I really should have tended to my bees, but my truck was blocking my quad and I figured it would be best for me to offload the lumber and move the truck. Or maybe just offload the lumber and build the shelves to get the lumber completely out of the way.

So I did.

Let me explain a little bit about how a post and beam building — or pole building — is constructed. They start by digging holes in the ground and planting vertical posts. My building is made with a combination of 6×6 and 6×8 pressure treated posts. Then they nail the girts in horizontally, 24 inches on center. Next, they put the roof trusses atop the posts. They add rafters to finish framing out the roof. They cover that with insulation or a vapor barrier or both and then screw on the metal skin. They pour the concrete slab last — if the building has one (mine does). If you’re interested in seeing my building built in a time-lapse movie, be sure to check out this blog post.

The posts are usually 12 feet apart. In the bungee cord area, however, the distance between the door to my stairwell and the first post was only 7 feet. The reason: the front door and entrance vestibule is also on that wall. So the shelves needed to be just 7 feet long.

I dragged the saw horses my friend Bob had made me — they’re taller than standard sawhorses and much nicer to use — to the driveway outside the garage door, which I opened. I used my circular saw to make the cuts; later, I used my miter saw and table saw to get cleaner cuts when needed. And bit by bit I assembled the pieces I needed to build a short set of shelves with just a top and bottom shelf. The bottom shelf needed two cut outs — one for an electrical outlet (long story) and the other for the pipe for the outside hose bib. I got to use my new 1-1/2-inch hole saw, which I’d actually bought for a beehive project.

Bungee wall with shelves
Here’s my bungee cord wall with the new shelves. I arranged all the tools I used for the project on the shelves.

I had to make a few blocks out of scrap wood to support various components of the shelves as I assembled them and screwed them together. I drilled pilot holes — I always do a neater job when there’s a hole predrilled for a screw. I used two 2×2 lengths that had been sitting around forever for the front horizontal shelf supports. These were small shelves so they didn’t need to be very heavy duty.

When I was done, I realized that I also needed a center vertical support. So I used a piece of scrap wood leftover from my windowsill project. Done.

And Then More Shelves

The truck wasn’t empty yet. I still had plenty of wood. I also had a really messy wall at the front of that garage bay. And time.

Old ShelvesHere’s the old shelves with a bunch of car stuff on them. This whole area looks like crap here — and this was after I’d moved some trim wood stored there.

A long time ago, I’d bought a very heavy duty bookshelf for my books. I have a lot of books. I don’t remember if this shelf was from my New Jersey home or if I got it for the office I had at my condo in Wickenburg for a while. In any case, it eventually made its way to my Wickenburg hangar where I stored a lot of stuff on it. When I moved from Wickenburg to an East Wenatchee hangar and eventually to my new home in Malaga, the shelves came with me. I’d put them in the front of that garage bay and was using it to store miscellaneous auto-related stuff.

But it looked like crap.

I texted a friend of mine who has rental properties. Want an old bookshelf in decent condition? I sent a picture. Sure, she answered. Send a man with a truck, I told her. (She’d also taken my old Sony Trinitron off my hands.)

I took all the things off the shelves and used a hand truck to move the shelves over to a spot between Bay 2 (Honda S2000) and Bay 3 (Ford truck). Hopefully, the man with the truck will come within a few days. I swept. And then I got to work.

Four shelves, no shelf cutting needed because 8 feet was fine. I ripped two 2x4s on my table saw and used them for horizontal supports for the front of the shelves. Then I cut 2 2x4s to 79 inches and started piecing all of it together.

Penny and Sheep
I had to crop the heck out of this cell phone photo. My truck mirror is on the right.

And that’s when Penny started barking like a little nut. I went out to investigate. She was halfway down the driveway at a standoff with a bighorn sheep. After some more barking, she spooked it and it bounded off. And then a dozen of its friends shot out of my side yard after it. There had been a whole herd of them less than 100 yards from where I was working and I didn’t even know it.

I took a break for lunch. I saw the sheep again later. They got very close. I got photos. But I’ll save that for another blog post.

I eventually got back to work. Again, I had to cut supports as I mounted each shelf. But once I got the hang of it, it went very quickly. I was done within an hour.

I put away my tools and set about organizing car and motorcycle-related stuff on the new shelves. I found a garage door opener for my old house. I found the stock mats that had come with my old Ford F350. (It had custom rubber mats so these were brand new; I photographed them and put them on Craig’s List.) I walked around my whole garage, looking for anything remotely car or motorcycle related and moved it to the shelves. I still had lots of space to fill.

I had some extra wall space between the shelves and the garage door. I measured a crate I had in my shop and moved it into position. I cut a piece of wood to give it a sold top. Then I moved my gas cans and spare propane bottle onto it. It made sense to keep stuff like that near the door where it could be quickly removed.

I found a few more bungee cords and put them away.

I spent some time admiring my handiwork. I might be the Queen of Clutter, but it isn’t by choice. If everything has a place, everything can be put away. The trick is finding a place for everything. Now I have a place for my car stuff.

Finished Garage Shelves
These shelves look a lot nicer than the mess I had there before.

Up Next

Before I called it quits for the day and went upstairs to get cleaned up, I took a look at the wall in Bay 4. That’s where my little boat and motorcycle live. It’s a big mess and could really use some shelves. I’m thinking it might be a good place to organize all of my extra beekeeping equipment.

Looks like I’ll be hitting Home Depot for more lumber again.

Footnote

After writing this and posting it and then re-reading it online, I started thinking about all the work I’d done to build these shelves — and to do all the other things I’ve done as part of the construction of my home. A lot of it is difficult, challenging work that requires me to use my brains as well as my physical strength to get a project done. A lot of people would shy away from work like this and either hire someone else to do it or not do it at all. I know this from experience; so many projects at my Arizona house just didn’t get done. Or got done the way a contractor did them — which might not be the way it should have been done to meet needs.

Doing things like this myself is a task and a challenge I really look forward to. I don’t have a regular job that requires me to show up at an office or sit at a desk and make calls all day. My time is infinitely flexible. I could spend it sleeping all day or watching television or just goofing off. Yet many days, I choose to spend my time working hard on projects like this. The way I see it, there are four benefits:

  • I get the thing done and get the benefits of that. In this case, I’ve got a bunch of neat, new storage spaces where I used to have a wall with a lot of stuff piled up on it.
  • I save money on what it would have cost to hire someone to do the job. It’s a lot cheaper for me to spend a few hours on a project like this than to pay a carpenter to do it. It’s not like I don’t have the time.
  • I learn new techniques, often through trial and error. The things I learn can be applied to other projects. The way I see it, if I can’t learn something every day, why bother getting out of bed?
  • I get an amazing feeling of satisfaction every time I look at something I created with my own hands. My home is full of things like this. Read my construction posts to see what I’ve done; I’m proud of every single project I finished.

The people who think I’m doing these things because I’m cheap or bored are completely missing the point. They likely haven’t taken on projects like these, projects that can meet a specific need and give them so much satisfaction for every minute of effort put into them. It’s not difficult if you think it through and have the right materials and tools. Dare I say it? It’s fun.

Try it sometime and see for yourself.

The Sun Shades

A solution to a “problem” I’d hoped I wouldn’t have.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

Earlier in June, I finally broke down and ordered sun shades for my home.

My living space has 15 windows, 11 of which are 4 feet wide by 5 feet tall and, as positioned, offer a nearly unobstructed view of what’s outside. (The others 4 are 6 feet wide and 3 feet tall up near the ceiling facing south.) Because I have no close neighbors and no worries about people looking in, I don’t have any curtains or shades. The result: my home is very bright with natural light during daylight hours.

Great Room at First Light
My great room, looking west northwest, shot from my desk at first light. The number and placement of windows offers an almost unobstructed view of what’s outside beyond my deck.

This isn’t perfect, however. (What is?) While the 7 north-facing windows are shaded by the roof over my deck on that side, the 3 east-facing and 1 west-facing windows are not. This time of year, I get a lot of direct sun into the east windows in the morning and into the west window in the afternoon. Although this tends to raise the temperature in my living room (morning) and bedroom (afternoon), that’s not really a problem — my air conditioning and ceiling fans can handle that. What is a problem is that I can’t work comfortably at my desk in the morning with the sun shining in my face. I’m also slightly concerned about the affect of direct sun on my living room’s red leather sofa and bedroom’s brown leather sofa and the various antique and heirloom items I own.

Solution: sun shades: shades that offer some filtering of the sun without completely blocking out the view. These are extremely popular in Arizona, where the sun can be brutally strong, especially in the summertime. I had a set at my home there for afternoon relief on the west-facing downstairs patio. Those were off-the-shelf roll-up shades from Home Depot that were admittedly cheap and ill-fitting but did the job. I’d want something a lot nicer for my new home.

In the past, I’ve ordered blinds from Select Blinds, a great source of blinds, shades, and other window treatments. This is where I ordered faux wood blinds for the little windows in my Howard Mesa cabin in Arizona and cloth vertical blinds for the sliding glass doors on the Phoenix condo. These folks do great work at a good price. There’s always a sale or special deal.

This time around, I ordered inside mount sun shades that filtered out only 14% of sunlight, thus letting a lot of light through. I’d be able to see through them, even when they’re down. I figured I’d put them on the 3 east and 1 west windows and use them in the summer. If they were easy to remove from the mounting hardware, I’ll likely remove them for the rest of the year. I don’t want anything blocking my view.

What I liked a lot about the blinds I chose is that they didn’t have to be wound up or down with a cord. They were spring-loaded, just like the blinds my parents had in our house for privacy back in the 1960s. You could pull them down in any position and with a tug, let them retract back up. No cord to worry about getting sucked into my Roomba or tangled into the power cord for my router or TV.

As usual, there was a special deal. (Deals aren’t really “special” if they’re always available, but I’m not complaining.) This time it was 35% off plus an additional 10%, 15%, or 20% off depending on the order total. My order of four custom-sized blinds — each window opening is a little different, thanks to the slap dash nature of the window framing — qualified for the extra 15% off, bringing the order total to just $370, including shipping. I sincerely doubt I could have gotten a better deal locally

Weeks went by. I was out working in my garden when the FedEx Ground truck came and dropped off a long box. My blinds.

I got to work the next day. The first chore was to finish the seal between the window and drywall. Although the drywall guys had done a great job hanging a lot of drywall in my home and fitting it around windows to create the box-like effect I have, they did a crappy job of finishing. I had to buy paintable caulk, run beads in the joints, and smooth it with a neat little caulking tool I have just for that purpose. A bit of paint once the caulk had dried finished the job.

Bad Finish Better Finish
Left: typical bad joint between drywall and window frame. Most of my windows were like this. (Apparently, the general contractor (me), was supposed to hire a finish guy. Who knew? I guess I’m that guy.) Right: joint between window and frame after applying and smoothing caulk. A bit of paint made it perfect.

Drywall Anchor and Screw
An example of a drywall anchor and screw.

Installation of the blinds was easy. Although I used the mounting brackets they came with, I could not use the screws. I needed drywall anchors, since the screw positioning did not connect with any of the studs. No problem — I had suitable drywall anchors with corresponding screws leftover from another project that didn’t need the anchors. I measured and marked, drilled holes, tapped in anchors, positioned brackets, and screwed in fasteners. (Any job is easy when you’ve got the right tools.) Using the tags in each blind bag, I matched the blinds to the windows. There was a bit of a challenge getting the middle east blind in — they were all a tight fit — but some creative use of a hammer resolved the problem.

Blinds Down
With the blinds down, plenty of light comes through and I can still see what’s outside. Although the blinds are long enough to go down to the windowsill, I typically only lower them to the part that opens so air flow is not restricted.

Blinds Open
When the blinds are open, the roller at the top of the window frame is nearly invisible, so I don’t have to look at them at all.

The result was perfect — exactly what I wanted. Actually, even a little better, as these two photos of two east side windows illustrate.

When the blinds are down, the light is filtered just enough. I can sit at my desk and work comfortably to get things done, but there’s still plenty of that morning light to illuminate the room. And I can see right through the shades for a sort of gauzy view of what lies beyond.

When the blinds are up, they roll tightly to the top of the window. Because I chose a neutral color — a sort of linen white — they are nearly invisible. No need to remove them in the winter months — which is good because the hardware would be very noticeable without them. This is a total win-win for me because I really don’t want to see any window coverings on any of my windows unless they are in use. I don’t believe in “dressing” a window when the real beauty is outside.

Of course, I only need the blinds down on the east side in the early morning — say before 10 AM — starting about a month before the summer solstice and ending about a month afterwards. The same goes for the one west side window in my bedroom for the afternoon — say after 4 PM — although I tend to keep that one down all day long because I’m not usually in that room during the day.

In all, I think I found the perfect solution to a “problem” I was hoping I wouldn’t have. The sun shades do the job, look great, and weren’t outrageously expensive.

This is only one of the challenges I’m facing and working through as I put the finishing touches on my home. The loft rails, which I finished this past winter, was another. Coming up is a big one: the stairs to the loft. Now that I have all the materials I need to start working on them, I hope to be blogging about that soon.

Golden Hour at the Aerie

Two shots showcasing my home.

Even amateur photographers — or at least serious amateur photographers like me — know that the best time for landscape photography is during the so-called “Golden Hour.” This is the time of day roughly one hour after sunrise and roughly one hour before sunset when the sun’s light is soft and often golden in color. Long shadows provide depth which adds texture and highlights contours in land forms. Colors are skewed reddish, which can make everything look just better.

Construction on my home has been mostly done — I still have a few things to do inside like finishing trim and building a set of stairs to the loft — for a few months now. I got my official certificate of occupancy about two months ago. I recently did some outside work to clean up “the yard” and make it look presentable. I have ten acres but I really only maintain about an acre of it — the rest is natural vegetation: bunch grass, sagebrush, and wildflowers. It gets really green here in spring but starts to brown up by late May. This year, we’ve had just enough rainfall to really turn on the wildflowers and keep the grass green and gold. Really pretty.

Perfect for capturing some shots of my home to share with friends and family.

I got the first shot the other day. I happened to be down at my Lookout Point bench late in the afternoon when I looked back up at my home. The light was just right to illuminate the multitude of wildflowers that had grown between the bench and my building. Unfortunately, I’d left my Jeep and truck in front of their garage doors and that made the place look less than perfect. By the time I moved them and came back, the light would be gone. I decided to do it another day.

Afternoon Home
I like this shot the best, mostly because you can also see the nearly full moon in the sky above the cliffs.

That day came a few days later. I was inside, resting up from some minor surgery I’d had earlier in the day when I realized that the light was perfect. I grabbed my phone and ran down the stairs with Penny at my heels. We hurried down the path to Lookout Point and I turned around. Perfect!

I shot about 10 photos from different angles. This is the one I like the best.

I very seldom share this view of my home. The reason: it only photographs well in the afternoon in late spring, summer or early autumn. Other times, the cliffs to the south are in shadows.

This shot really shows off the beauty of the cliffs behind my home. They rise about 1,000 feet above my road and consist of basalt columns of rock laid down during Washington’s prehistoric volcanic past and carved away by ice age floods. My home sits on a shelf of tightly packed silt; the land drops away again toward the river to the north.

The vegetation up there, by the way, is ponderosa pine with the occasional aspen grove. I’ll be planting some of those on my property in the years to come. The irrigation lines to get them started are already laid.

This morning, the light and clouds were perfect again for a golden hour shot of the front of my home, which faces east. I didn’t mind the truck being parked on the concrete apron by the big RV garage door — although the truck does manage to make the 14 feet tall by 20 feet wide door look small. I grabbed my phone again and hiked up my driveway and partially up the road behind my home. I took just three shots from different angles. This was the middle one and I like it best.

Morning at Home
This shot, taken this morning, shows off the front and north side of my home, as well as the view beyond. The view, privacy, and quiet is what sold me on this building site when I first saw it back in 2012.

Every time I look at my home, I realize that none of it would have been possible if I’d stayed married to the sad sack old man who was living in a rut in Arizona. I’m sad for him — he would have really liked it here, maybe as much as I do — but I’m thrilled to have had the freedom to build the home I wanted and to live the lifestyle I’ve come to cherish.

Life is what you make it. If you want something badly enough, you need to make it happen. There’s nothing that says that more to me than my home here at the Aerie.

Two Years Ago Today

A photo reminds me of a personal milestone.

Two years ago today, on May 19, 2014, the builders broke ground on the construction of the home I’d designed for myself on 10 acres of view property in Malaga, WA. I’d bought the land the summer before, the day after my divorce decree was [finally] handed down from the judge. The building would utilize post and beam construction, commonly known as a pole building, to give me a 2,880 square foot garage/shop area and 1,200 square feet of living space with a 600 square foot deck. The goal: all my possessions under one roof with a comfortable, modern home that would showcase the amazing view.

After doing some prep work — bringing in temporary power, putting in a septic system, finalizing plans with the builder, and getting the building site prepped for construction — the four-man team that did 90% of the building construction work arrived with equipment and started digging. They dug 44 post holes that first day and had the posts set in concrete by the end of the next day.

This photo, which I stumbled upon this past weekend while digging up photos for another blog post, shows the workers digging that first hole. The auger did most of the work, but they did hit rocks that had to be removed by hand. Miraculously, this was the only hole with large rocks in it.

First Hole
X marks the spots where the holes needed to be dug. They only hit rocks on the first hole. The trusses for the RV garage roof are leaned up against the hill in this shot.

I was living onsite at the time, in my RV parked near the building site. I had a GoPro camera set up on top of it and made daily time-lapse videos of the work, which I shared on my blog starting on May 20, 2013. It was an exciting time — I was watching something I’d designed be built right before my eyes. I kept out of the way but took lots of photos. In the evening, after the crew left, I’d wander around the site and play with the equipment, sometimes using it to move dirt or easily climb to the second floor once it had been built.

Now, two years later, I’m living in that home with a Certificate of Occupancy as the County’s approval for not only my design and Western Ranch’s construction, but the hours of labor it took to turn a metal building shell into a home.

When I look at these old pictures of the place before my building existed, I find it hard to believe that I’ve come so far in such a short period of time. It’s amazing how much I can get done when there’s nothing holding me back.

This photo — and the blog posts and videos and other photos that document the work done — marks a milestone in my life, proof that I can move forward and make things happen — better than ever on my own.

It’s hard to believe that this photo was shot only two years ago.