Posts belonging to Category Domestic Affairs

Cutting the cord

I’m thinking about doing away with my FiOS TV subscription.  I only watch about three shows these days, one of which is available over the air with the other two available on Amazon Instant Video for $1.99 per episode.  It’s just not worth it to me to pay $90/month for just a few shows.  I would only keep the most basic minimal channel lineup (basically the OTA channels that Verizon puts on the wire in unencrypted QAM) so that I can get the local news (I don’t want to mess with an external antenna).

If anyone has done this, I’d be curious to know the results and how satisfied you’ve been using Netflix, Amazon, and or Hulu.

Losing My Cool

Last fall, my A/C system that is less than two years old stopped cooling.  I called for service and they found a leak in a fitting at the evaporator coil in the garage.  That cost me a little over $200 because of the refrigerant (which is exorbitantly expensive and laden with various and sundry EPA pitfalls for the company).  Fast forward to the first really warm day this spring: I started it up again and it wouldn’t cool.  I called the service company again and they discovered that it was low again and added more refrigerant (to the tune of another $200) and tried, but could not find the leak with the electronic sniffer.  So they recommended a UV dye check (which costs another $250).

The service tech was just here and showed me with the UV light that there is a leak in the evaporator coil, which is not repairable.  It will require a whole new coil.  The good news is that the coil is under warranty.  The bad news is that it will cost $1000 to replace it (that includes labor, miscellaneous parts, and the ever-so-expensive refrigerant), and labor is not covered at this point in the warranty.

It’s absolutely gripes my butt that a 2-year-old unit would have a leak in the coil like that.  I will definitely not consider this brand (Goodman) again, if this is any indicator of their quality.

Update: I guess I should retract that statement about Goodman.  It’s impossible to tell if it’s their fault (faulty unit) or an installation issue.  The tech was here this morning and he is convinced that there is insufficient return air for this unit, based on the small return-air filter opening, which the original installers should have noted at the time.  Insufficient return air flow can cause increased pressure in the system, which can kill a compressor (and possibly lead to a leak in a coil).  The next step will be to investigate adding an additional return air intake and ducting.


I’ve been dithering over what to get to replace the Avalanche since well before I had it paid off.  I was looking for something that could carry at least four people and two dogs and that would be easier for the dogs to get into and out of, particularly since Malcolm (the Collie) is not coordinated enough to climb like Boots can.

I finally got serious about it last week and decided to take a really close look at the Ford Flex.  It’s lower to the ground, has room for 6 or 7 people (depending on the chosen options), and the rear seats can fold down for the dogs.  After checking with my credit union to line up financing, I went to Five Star Ford (NRH) last Friday afternoon and spent about three hours with a lady from their credit union/fleet department test driving a couple of models (the SEL and Limited).  She was very easy to work with and (unlike the ‘regular’ part of the dealership) didn’t try to pressure me into taking what’s on the lot or any particular options.  She took the time to look around the area and find a Flex with the exact options that I wanted.  In particular, I wanted a Flex Limited with the 40-40 second row but without a console (and especially without that silly refrigerator option).  I also wanted the dark blue (what Ford calls “Kona Blue”).  It turned out that there was exactly ONE model within 300 miles, located at a dealership in Houston.  She called them and arranged a dealer trade.

So, as of 6:00pm yesterday, I traded in the Avalanche and I am now the owner of a 2011 Ford Flex Limited in Kona blue with silver roof:

Flexter?  Needs a nickname... Flex from the back.

It’s a little strange to NOT be driving a truck or SUV, since I’ve been driving them since 1993.  But I think this is a good compromise.  It’s got nice upright seating, and you can see fairly well, but you don’t have to climb into and out of it.  Another plus is that the second row seating has a lot of legroom.  I put the driver’s seat all the way back and was still able to easily get in and out of the second row (and had lots of room to stretch out).

Besides, I wasn’t using the capabilities of the Avalanche to its fullest: I haven’t towed anything in many years (since I moved to Keller) and I used the AWD maybe twice in the 7 years I had it.  So I really couldn’t see getting another SUV.  If I need to tow or haul, I can rent a truck or get a hitch fitted to the Flex when the need arises.


I have a TV mounted on the wall in the kitchen because I like to watch the local news while I’m in there (and because I kind of like to have some sort of background sound on even if it isn’t the news).  The problem is that there is no cable outlet in there, so I’ve struggled with OTA reception since the beginning.  However, since the introduction of digital TV the problem has gotten worse as digital is ‘all or nothing’ and in many cases the stations have moved to UHF, which tends to have less range than VHF.  The only channels I can receive in that position with even the best indoor antenna are 4 and 11, and even then they’re not reliable.  Any time we had high winds (or ice and snow) it changed the conditions just enough to cause channel 4 to fade in and out in a frustratingly random way (there was no way I could adjust the antenna to fix it).

If I’d wanted to continue to get OTA programming my only choice would be to mount an antenna on the roof and bring a line inside from it to the TV.  I didn’t really want to do that.  The next option would have been to tie into the FIOS service, but that would have required running coax cable to the location, and I also didn’t want to get into that kind of trouble or expense.

What changed the game recently was when I discovered a device called the HDHomeRun from a company called SiliconDust. It’s a network-attached ATSC tuner that will stream either OTA or clear-QAM channels to any computer on your network.  So when I found an older model on sale recently it gave me the idea that I could put a small computer in the kitchen running Linux and  MythTV and wirelessly stream the TV signal from the HDHomeRun.  And since the HDHomeRun could tune clear-QAM signals, it meant that I could tune the 23 non-encrypted channels that Verizon includes in the FIOS “Local” package without need of another cable box or an external antenna.

For those not familiar with it, MythTV is a free, open-source, software DVR.  It has a distributed network architecture and can work with a variety of computer-connected tuner and capture devices.  It can loosely be thought of as a roll-your-own TiVo.  It consists of two main components: a backend, which handles all the video capture duties; and a frontend, which is what displays the available streams.  It also has a pluggable architecture, so you can add additional features like the ability to view videos and photos, listen to music, browse the web, and view local weather forecasts.

Over the weekend I finally went ahead and set the whole thing up.  I installed MySQL and the MythTV backend on my desktop PC (which is a quad-core 3GHz Athlon with 8GB of RAM) and the MythTV frontend on a Foxconn NetBox-nT330i that I happened to have kicking around (it has a 30GB SSD and 2GB of RAM; it’s nearly silent–the only moving part is the processor fan).  Both systems are running Ubuntu 10.04 (LTS). The only glitch was that the version of MythTV included in the Ubuntu 10.04 repositories (v0.23) had issues with locking up when changing channels on the HDHomeRun.  I installed the Mythbuntu repository updater and updated to the latest revision of V0.24 which fixed it.

One of the neat features of the NetBox is that it’s so small that it can be mounted to the back of an LCD monitor using the VESA mounting holes and an included bracket.  For this setup I mounted it to the monitor and put the monitor on the shelf I’d been using for the TV.

So, at this point, whenever I want to watch live TV, the backend takes control of the HDHomeRun’s first tuner (the second is not yet connected to anything), streams the data to a disk buffer and feeds the buffered stream to the frontend.  This allows for pause and rewind of live TV.  An added benefit of all this is that I now have a full program guide as well as the ability to schedule recordings (via the frontend or via web browser), which the backend will handle and make available to the frontend on request.  I also have the ability to browse the web thanks to the MythTV browser plugin, which I think will come in handy for pulling up recipes.

It probably sounds more complicated than it actually is, but it really wasn’t that much effort.  But it’s the sort of thing that appeals to my inner geek.  Further, I already had all the equipment, other than the HDHomeRun, so it didn’t cost too much to set up (the HDHomeRun dual-tuner was on sale for $80 when I bought it; setting up a decent OTA outdoor antenna would likely have cost that much or more).

I still have a few things to do to smooth out the rough edges, though, as it’s not ready for use by non-geeks.  I have an infrared remote control hooked up to the frontend, and while you can do enough with it to tune live TV and watch videos, it still requires a keyboard to do a lot of stuff, so I need to get the IR mapping cleaned up enough to make it intuitive for those used to using a DVR.  I also am planning to take the NetBox off of the monitor and install an arm in place of the current shelf, which was originally installed for a small tube TV.  I’ll also route the wires better and make it a clean installation when I do.

Four Hour Windows Suck

I’ll just have to admit up front that I hate it when companies give you a “four hour window” for a service appointment or a delivery.  I suppose it’s a small improvement over the way it used to be when they gave you a whole day to spend cooling your heels waiting on a call (and woe betide the person who missed that call).  This is directly related to the fact that I cannot recall *EVER* having any company actually show up during the window (either all day or ‘four hours’).

Yesterday I was scheduled to take delivery of a new electric range from Home Depot.  On Sunday an automated system called me to tell me that my window would be between noon and 4:00pm.  Frankly, the tone of the call left me cold, as it actually said that this was “not changeable” (although you could call to schedule another day).  So, basically, they’re telling you they reserve the right to waste at least four hours of your time, if not more and your only choice is what day it happens on.  This did not sit well with me.  If someone at Home Depot actually cares about the customer experience they could at least find someone else to record the message or perhaps find a way to script it differently.  It comes off as rude.

So… I began waiting at noon yesterday.   By 3:00pm I was still waiting and I was thinking about calling them to see what the problem was (the previous call specified that I would get a call between one hour and 30 minutes before delivery, so they’re starting to get into the ‘critical’ period where they will miss the delivery window).  At 3:02pm (per Caller ID) I got an automated call to tell me that the delivery team was on the way and would be here in approximately 30 minutes.  At 3:42pm I got a call from the delivery team to tell me they had started on their way and that it would take them 30-45 minutes to arrive, depending on traffic.  You will note that this is 40 minutes after the automated system told me they would have been here.   They finally arrived at approximately 4:15pm.

Once they arrived they were courteous, efficient, and friendly, and they had the new range installed and operational in about 15 minutes.  They told me that they had gotten hung up on a previous job installing a dish washer.

Once they were done there was a survey to fill out.  It was very short, but I was told that if I rated them a 9 (on a scale of 1-10) on anything that they got punished (I think he said they would lose a work day or something like that).  I was a bit wary of that explanation (thinking maybe he’s trying to deflect me from dinging him on the survey for being late), yet I know that some idiotic processes end up treating people that way (viz eBay’s seller ratings*).   He didn’t have much to worry about, as most of the survey was about their actions and didn’t cover the problem of bad information being passed to me by Home Depot on the phone.

And that, frankly, was the main reason I was angry about the whole experience.  I understand that sometimes things take longer than expected.  But the most important part of that is managing customer expectations.  Don’t call me and tell me that it’ll be 30 minutes when the delivery team hasn’t even left the previous location yet.

Before I end there is one further irritant in the process, though, that I will comment on.  The last call that I got from Home Depot (the ’30 minute’ call) also told me to ‘put away’ any dogs or cats.  That irritated the living hell out of me.  As a general rule, I do not ‘put away’ the dogs for anyone.  This is their home.  Anyone coming here needs to understand that (and as a general rule, delivery people should be pet aware).  In fact, I almost sent my cleaning crew away last week when one of them suggested I put the dogs outside because the new person was afraid of dogs.  It clearly states on my record with the cleaning company that I have dogs.  They shouldn’t have sent a phobic person.  But I digress…  this is about Home Depot.

So… what could Home Depot have done better (staying within the ‘four hour’ rule)?  First, they could have made the initial contact less confrontational by recording a less rude message.  Second, they could have coordinated the actual arrival time of the delivery team with the automated phone message so that I wouldn’t have been expecting them earlier.  Third, they can be less rude about pets in their phone messaging.

But the above presupposes that the ‘four hour window’ is a valid way to do business.  I have come to conclude that the ‘four hour window’ is a terrible way to do business, because everyone knows that they won’t be there when they say they will and we end up wasting hours waiting.  Someone at Home Depot needs to put the logistics boffins into a room and lock them there until they come up with a viable delivery model.

* If you’ve bought anything from eBay in the past couple of years, you probably know that if you rate a seller anything less than 5 stars on any of the extended questions that the seller ends up being punished with higher listing fees.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, y’all!

I’m in sunny East Texas this morning, but a quick check of my camera shows that those of you back in Keller got a white Christmas:

Be safe.  See ‘ya next year…


Between work, personal commitments, and my own geeky obsessions, I keep getting distracted from updating this blog (I am interrupt driven and I have a limited call stack).

Anyhow, for the past few weeks something has been bugging me and I finally did something about it over the weekend.  When we teach CERT there is a section on eliminating hazards in the home and workplace.  One of the things we emphasize is to use electrical outlets and power strips safely and to eliminate the “electrical octopus” which is so familiar to many of us.  Every time I mentioned that I kind of felt bad about it because I knew that I was violating the rule myself. 

So I set out to see how I could get control of the rat’s nest of cables under my desk and in my office.  I researched “DIY cable management” and came across some interesting ideas from various sites.  After absorbing as much info as I could, I solidified my own requirements:

  • Must not have any power strips plugged into another power strip (bad form!).
  • Wires must not be lying on the floor.
  • All wall warts would have their own outlet saver
  • All computer equipment must go into a single rack.
  • No wires would be run exposed on walls and wires on the desktop surface must be minimized (i.e. run as direct as possible).

Given the above I set about trying to assemble all of the supplies that I would need.  First, I tried finding a suitable rack.  It turns out that even entry-level rack hardware is mind-numbingly expensive.  A simple 24-inch wide LAN Station started at $500 and went up as you added features.  Taking a cue from these guys I contemplated building my own.  I drew up some sketches and came up with a parts list, which when I estimated the cost came to about $150 just for the parts.  A little more searching turned up a 24x24x54 wire shelving unit for $166 with shipping (and an extra shelf).

That settled, I started figuring out how to set up my workspace so that the monitors, keyboard, and mouse would work.  I ordered extra long video and power cables along with a USB hub and 15-ft cable.  I also took the opportunity to order a new keyboard and mouse.  The old keyboard I’d been using was PS/2 and the mouse was 6 years old and starting to get a bit flaky (every so often it would stall and you’d have to bang the mouse on the desk to wake it up).  I also ordered outlet savers in bulk. 

For wire management, I thought about some of the lessons I’d seen in various Instructables  and bought some multicable staples, cable-tie mounting bases, and a bag of reusable cable-ties.  I also bought some on-wall J-channel raceway to run just behind the desk to catch all the cables that go to the various items there.

So… here’s how things looked before.  Not only was it a tangled mess, it was impossible to keep clean because you couldn’t vacuum and separating the cables for cleaning was hopeless.

The overall mess:

The electrical octopus: (a.k.a. the rat’s nest)

After ripping out all the wiring (if you look closely you can make out the five(!) power strips):

I also took the opportunity to clean out the insides of the server (this is two years of gunk; the heatsink fins under the fan are 100% blocked; it’s a miracle the system stayed as cool as it did):

What it looked like when I installed it (for reference):

My home brew under desk power distribution unit.  This was made from a 2U rack shelf, a rack-mount surge protector, a 1U blank, and two 14-inch rack rails.  I had everything but the rails already on hand.  If I were building a “real” rack to support more weight I’d have to have used some additional support, but since this is so short there’s no wobble from not having a back section.  All “non-essential” equipment is plugged into this surge protector, and all wall warts have an outlet saver, allowing them to rest on the rack shelf.  This keeps them off the carpet and makes the whole thing (somewhat) movable for cleaning underneath the desk.

All the wires under the desk are now tied up off the floor (not exactly neat, but serviceable):

A small rack I added for the power supply to one of the monitors (this one is plugged into the second UPS) along with the USB hub for the keyboard, monitor, and Palm sync cradle:

The rack with the main UPS, the server, and both desktops (there’s also a second UPS behind the HP box on the right):

The whole thing:

I spent about 6 hours Saturday night and another 8 hours or so on Sunday working on this.  It doesn’t look like a whole lot after it’s all installed, but the fact that most wires are hidden belies the effort it took to hide them (i.e. drilling holes, putting up hangers, routing wires, fishing wires into awkward places, and general annoyance at hitting your head on the slide-out keyboard tray for the 15th time in one night as you come out from under the desk).

Keeping My Cool…

From the ‘crap that costs me money’ department…

The day that I’d been dreading for the past year and a half finally came about two weeks ago.  The ancient (23 year old) air conditioner that came with the house finally went Tango Uniform.  I’d been kind of expecting it, because when units get that old the compressors start to wear out, generally due to insulation breakdown in the windings.  In this case, one of the terminals on the compressor had completely burned off (I didn’t ask whether it was the start or run terminal, although it really doesn’t matter at this point).

I was preparing for a battle with the home warranty company, but they didn’t put up a fight about authorizing a new 13-SEER condenser unit (the outside part for those of you not up with central air lingo).  I contemplated this for a bit, and then asked the A/C contractor for a quote on a new system (applying the money the home warranty was offering to replace the condenser to the new system) because connecting a 13-SEER condenser to the existing inside air handler/furnace unit would de-rate it and reduce its efficiency.  And given our usual Texas summers and my past electricity bills I decided it was worth it to investigate a more efficient system.

They gave me two quotes, one for a full 14-SEER system and another for a 16-SEER system (16 is now required to get the energy tax credit).  Both quotes were eye-popping, with the 16-SEER coming in at just under $8K.  But once I picked myself up off the floor, and after checking their finance offer, I decided on the 16-SEER system.  With the amount paid by the home warranty, my cost on the 16-SEER was $7170, and I would get $1500 back next year through a tax rebate, which puts my actual cost (eventually) at $5670, which wasn’t much more than the 14-SEER.  Further, they had a 12-month “same as cash” offer, which would put my payments at just a hair under $600 (for the whole amount of $7170; the $1500 doesn’t get back to me until I file taxes next year).

I’m hoping to recoup some of that during the summers. It’s hard to calculate the exact energy savings in advance, because the old unit did not have a SEER rating, but given its age, it could not have been more than an 8 or 9.  And going from an 8 to an 16 would have the potential to save up to 50% on energy costs.  Last summer I had electricity bills ranging from $400 to $600 during the worst of the summer months.  At 50% savings, and factoring in just the worst three months ($1500 combined), the system will pay for itself in 7.5 years.  At 30% savings it will take 12 years.  And that’s not taking into account future increases in electricity.  If some in the current administration, Congress, and/or the EPA get their way, we could be looking at significant energy cost increases as they implement an ill-advised cap-and-trade carbon emissions plan.

I may also get a little back on the gas bill in the winters, too, because this is a full system replacement that includes a new 95% efficiency furnace.  Although I’m not expecting a lot, since I don’t generally use the heat much.  I like the house to be fairly cool and my dogs love it cold, so I don’t use the furnace much (my worst gas bill in the winter so far has been about $80). 

Anyhow, it’s funny (in an ironic, rather than comic, way) because I just paid off the Avalanche in February, which freed up a little over $600 in my monthly budget.  Is there some kind of conservation of outlay rule (kind like conservation of energy) about monthly cash flow?  Or is the universe just being perverse, as usual?  Sometimes the timing of these things just seems way too coordinated to be coincidence. 

Oh well… here’s to a cool, and (hopefully) comfortable summer.

Learning Experience

In yesterday’s plaintive whine I asked…

And why is it that this house has a GFCI outlet in the garage (next to the breaker panel) but none in the bathrooms?  I know that current code requires them in bathrooms, so I’m guessing that the old code didn’t when the house was built in 1986.  But if it didn’t require it in a bathroom, why would there be one in the garage?  If it’s required because there’s a water heater in the garage, then it would seem to have made more sense to put one in the outlet next to the water heater.  But no, that one doesn’t have a GFCI outlet.

The electrician just left and his visit was very informative.  When I told him that the outlets in the bathroom were out, the first thing he asked was when the house was built.  When I told him 1986 his next question was whether there was a GFCI outlet in the garage.  It turns out that for houses built at that time that the GFCI outlet in the garage also protects all the outlets in the bathrooms.  So the real source of all of my problems yesterday morning was that the GFCI outlet in the garage had tripped, which took out the outlets in the bathrooms as well as the the Verizon ONT.  Since the GFCI appeared to be original (which would make it 22 or 23 years old) he recommended replacement because they often start to trip on their own as they get old.

So I had him replace the GFCI.  It’s a treat to watch a professional at work, as he had the old one out and the new one installed so fast that the Verizon ONT didn’t even drop my Internet connection.  I have enough knowledge of electricity to change a breaker or an outlet, but I also have enough knowledge to know that I’d rather not if I don’t have to.  It would also have taken me three times longer, since I won’t work on a live circuit, and I would have had to trace down which breaker controlled the circuit before starting.

Newspaper Landing Area vs Weather Conditions

I can’t help but notice of late that there seems to be a correlation between where my newspaper lands and the weather conditions.  Particularly, the paper only seems to land in the middle of the grass when there is rain or heavy dew.  If it’s dry outside, the paper will be perfectly centered in my drive way.

Is this caused by increased wind resistance due to the higher air density?  Or could it perhaps be a passive-aggressive attempt to punish the customer by someone who hates the job? 

The world may never know…