Roll out the barrel, and we’ll have a barrel of fun!

Many years ago [a couple of olympiads ago actually] the HomeOwnerFamily visited the FriendInRaleighFamily for a weekend.  FriendInRaleighMan is always a few steps cooler than HomeOwnerMan and just a few years ahead on technologies.  For example, he was the first person HomeOwnerMan knew who had given up cable TV for streaming content.  He described to his wide-eyed superhero friend how he had used an old computer and the internet to watch streamed content like NetFlix. While everyone else was going to their mailbox to retrieve damaged DVDs that would refuse to play just at the climax of the movie, FriendInRaleighMan didn’t even have to go to his mailbox! It was the coolest thing WifeGirl and HomeOwnerMan had ever seen, but it was still a year or two too cool for them.  But they all sat down and watched the olympics on broadcast TV.

Later in the visit, though, there was discussion of a futuristic gizmo that HomeOwnerMan thought might be in reach for him.  The invention was so far out there that HomeOwnerMan was sure that it was brought to earth by some advanced time-traveling civilization. The invention was called a “rain barrel” and it ingeniously captured rain runoff from the roofs of houses. This water could later be used to irrigate plants, wash cars, or even to flush toilets in the event of a water emergency. HomeOwnerMan was struck with awe and had to investigate further.


It was all HomeOwnerMan could talk about that year.  He looked up plans for how to build and deploy them.  He priced out the materials needed to make them.  He spoke to everyone who would listen about the virtues of them. (At the time, he wasn’t sure what the virtues were, but he knew it must be virtuous.)  One neighbor, we’ll call her PolesReversedLady, was listening to HomeOwnerMan and declared, “You know those things are illegal.  You aren’t allowed to take the rain water.  It belongs to the township, not to you.  And besides, it is really bad for the environment.  It will kill all the fish and dry up the aquifer…”  She went on and on.  Even though PolesReversedLady was wrong on every account and HomeOwnerMan was pretty sure it was all bunk, it was enough to stem his enthusiasm for almost 8 years.

HomeOwnerMan continued to research rain barrels but never with quite the zeal that he once had.But then just a few weeks ago when WifeGirl was reading SocialMediaBook and found a site that was offering a seminar on “how to make your own rain barrel”. She passed the link along to HomeOwnerMan for the New Jersey Water Supply Authority (NJWSA, and happy days were here again for HomeOwnerMan.  To begin with, it was vindication for him.  The rain barrel program was listed under the watershed protection program.  They keep runoff from carrying pollution to the streams, allowing the water to filter naturally through the soil before returning to the water supply.  They help prevent stream erosion by lowering the volume of water entering the stream during storm events.  The water can be used rather than pure drinking water for watering plants and washing cars.  They use no energy, and are so beneficial that many municipalities offer a credit for installing them.

Secondly, the program is very inexpensive.  For just $35 you are given all of the materials to build one, and you could build more than one if you wanted.  There is some installation expenses, but they are minimal and might be done with materials HomeOwnerMan has around the house.

C: the three women who run the program (Sarah, Alex, and Kathy) were superhero nice.  HomeOwnerMan was reminded of a flight attendant he once met on a particularly long flight where the passengers had become angry and restless.  The flight attendant offered a perky “Turkey Sandwich!?” to 310 passengers with poise and grace and never lost her smile.  The NJWSA women were just as perky and nice.

turkey sandwich

and IV: It took less than a half an hour to put the rain barrel together, and I’m guessing about a half and hour to install it as well.

So what are you waiting for?  Find out when the next seminar is in your area.  Build and install your own.  Save the planet.  Be a HomeOwnerMan (or HomeOwnerWoman) yourself.  You may not have the tights and the caricature (courtesy, but you will be a reasonable facsimile.  (FriendInRaleighMan had a facsimile machine, or Fax machine, before HomeOwnerMan, too.  He was just way cool!)

What Do You Do For a Living?

It is frequently the first question people ask you when they meet you, and sometimes it is more difficult to answer than one might think.  It should be a softball question, one you can hit out of the park, and yet I find myself stumped by it frequently.  I mean, not as my Super-hero self, mind you.  I always have a good answer when I’m in uniform like “Oh, save the world from leaky faucets” or “keep America squeak and leaf free.”  But when I’m protected by the super tool belt, few people ever ask me that.  They ask me “can I have your autograph?” or “did you really build that yourself?” or “are you going to eat those Fritos?”  (Actually, Wifegirl is the only one who ever asks me “are you going to eat those Fritos?”).

No, it is when I’m not in my supersuit that I have the most trouble with that question.  And it gets harder and harder every year.  When I was young I could easily answer with:

 I’m in third grade.

I’m a student.

 When I started getting jobs, they were defined by one task and so it was easy to answer:

 I mow lawns.

I wash lunch trucks (and forage through the Tastykake pies that I’m supposed to load onto them).

I flip burgers.

 As I got into late high school and early college, it got more complex, but still was pretty straightforward:


I serve dinner to senior citizens, and sometimes wheel them back to their apartments when they can’t make it on their own.  Sometimes I make up their menus by crossing out the things they’re not allowed to eat like salt or fat.


I drive a Rosati Italian Water Ice truck.  Not the kind that sells to the kids who are running down the street with a quarter in their hand and their little sister trailing behind; the kind that delivers to Woolworths and ice cream parlors and little league fields.


I repair A.V. equipment for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  Well, I don’t actually repair it,I clean it and plug it in.  If it works I wrap up the power cord and put a twist tie on it.  If it sparks or makes a grinding noise, I put a repair tag on it and describe the noise or the color of the sparks.

rosati water ice II

For many years I was an organist at my church.  One morning after Mass a man came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re pretty good.  Do you do this in real life?”  He saw the quizzical look on my face as I formulated an answer.  [Hmmm…In real life…Hmmm…Is church not real life?]  I was pleased with the answer that popped up in my glasses like they did in the “Terminator” movies.  My answer was neither insulting nor used any swear words like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s answer, but was a simple:

Yes, but not by trade.

 Soon I was out in the working world.  It became tougher to answer “What do you do for a living” for several reasons.  First, I didn’t do just one thing.  Like in my first job for an AgChem company the answer was essentially:

 I kill weeds.

 But it was actually much more like:

 I kill weeds while trying simultaneously to not kill the crop species, not cause harm to the environment or wildlife, and do so without breathing anything that will kill me or adversely affect my heretofore non-existent offspring.

 And I found that girls in bars were not so impressed by:

 I kill weeds.

 So I learned to cloud the actual truth with corporate speak like:

 In a challenging environment I subject the next generation of agricultural chemicals to a rigorous round of biological efficacy testing before they make it to the toxicological stage of testing.

 That didn’t so much work with the girls in the bars, either.  It only got harder when I moved from research on plants to research on animals.  I found out quickly that I really had to shroud what I actually did for a living by what I in theory did for a living.

 I’m looking for a way to protect the heart from the damage caused by an ischemic event.

That sounded better than what I really did which involved the hearts of many different species of animals.  As the years went on, research increasing moved from the animal to the test tube.  But there was a fundamental lack of understanding for the complexities of molecular biology and biochemistry, and if I used terms like “gene-splicing” or “cloning” people would either yell at me or get all weirded out.  Invariably they would ask if I was making Dolly the Sheep.   “No, I’m making IL-4” would be my answer, and they would get more weirded out thinking IL-4 was some humanized form of R2D2.  So I began answering the “what do you do” question with:

 I move minute amounts of liquid from one place to another with great precision.

 By this point I was married, so I didn’t have to impress the girls in the bars.  Most recently, however, I moved out of the labs and into the world of computers.  I thought this might make it easier to answer the question, but it really didn’t.  While in theory my answer should be:

 I support the discovery research scientists with their data collection, reduction, and aggregation needs

it is really more like:

 I tell people to “press the button.”

Because most of the time people call me with their computer problems, and most of the time they have a pretty good idea that their problem could mean the loss of a lot of work.  So my job is to, in a very calm voice, tell them to do what they already know they have to do.  It goes something like this:

Them: It says “Unspecified java error.  Ignore or Abort.“ I already tried “Ignore.”

Me: Try clicking “Abort.”

Them: Are you sure?

Me: Oh, absolutely.  (I’ve never seen this problem before in my life, and it’s not my data afterall.)

Them: OK.  Here I go.  Hey!  It worked!  Thanks, you’re a genius! (I love that part.)

 And as I’ve progressed in my IT career, I have learned the wisdom of turning the machine off and turning it back on.  So after 18 years of school and 28 years in the working world, my answer to the question “What do you do for a living” is:

 I tell the people to turn it off and turn it back on.

I’m a genius.

Leisure Time: What I’ve learned about hot tubs

I got a call this weekend from BigHeadMan, a superhero friend of mine since first grade. We took cape flying class together, and he always excelled at more of the intellectual parts of being a superhero, as well as being a hellava good guy. Anyway, he is re-doing his deck and asked for my opinion on hot tubs, being that WifeGirl and I have had one for 10 year now.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past 10 years:

1. Buy a high quality, fully insulated tub. This translates into spending more money up front, but it will pay for itself very quickly. We had neighbors who bought a no name, discount club hot tub. They told us it cost them up to $500 per month in electricity to run. In contrast, we estimate that ours costs less than $5 per month. (At the same time we were moving from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, so our electricity actually went down, but we think the estimate is pretty good.) There are two companies that I know of that make fully insulated tubs, Sundance and Watkins Manufacturing (who make Hot Spring, Solana, Limelight, and Tiger River brands). If you are saving even $50 per month in electricity over a lower quality spa, this will quickly pay for the extra money you may have spent up front. Ours is so well insulated that when it snows, if we don’t clear off the snow from the cover, it remains on the cover just as long as the snow on the surrounding deck.  We bought a Hot Spring Sovereign with a pearl shell.

2. Make sure you wet-test it first. All of the dealers will let you sit in the tub without water and see what it feels like. While this can give you a general idea, you really need to sit in it with water and with the jets operating. You may find that the seats are not comfortable when water is present, or that you float out of some of the seats, or that the jets are too strong or too weak or not positioned well. All reputable dealers are happy to let you try them out. Ideally, they will invite you back when the store is closed so that you can relax and compare a few. (This was our son’s favorite part of the process.)


3. Realistically judge how many people will use the tub. Many companies will try to sell you the largest, and most expensive spa they have. But realistically, 90% of the time there will be only one or two people in it. Decide based on your needs but underestimate your needs a bit. We chose a 6-person spa, but it is actually a little cozy with 6 people in it. This is not a problem, because in the 10 years we’ve had it this only happened one time. Typically it is just HomeOwnerMan and WifeGirl in it, and occasionally SonBoy.

4. Make sure it has a good foundation to sit on.  We were rebuilding our deck when we got the spa, so I designed the deck around the specs of the hot tub.  We made a portion of the deck so that the tub sat on a poured concrete slab and the rim of it sat flush with the deck.  That way, you don’t have to climb into the tub, but rather descend into the tub.  The biggest benefit of this, though, was the concrete slab.  Spas hold between one and two tons of water, so there is a lot of weight to consider.  If it goes on a deck, you typically have to reinforce the structure to carry the load.  And even with the reinforcement, the deck can shift or sag over time.  This puts stress on the spa shell, which is molded plastic or fiberglass, and can cause it to crack over time.  With the slab (which we poured with structural rebar in it), the spa has had a stable, level surface on which to sit.  Our shell is in as good shape as when it was new.

5. Get an ozonator.  An ozonator is a device which creates ozone (yes the same stuff we nearly depleted in the 1970s with hairspray and deodorant).  Ozone is effective at killing bacteria and viruses in water, and can greatly reduce the amount of chemicals you need in your spa.  When we bought our tubs, ozonators were basically long UV lights that had a life expectancy of only 200 hours or so.  Then they were ineffective.  So we opted to not buy one, and figured we’d pay a little extra for chemicals but each time we had to replace the UV bulb we would spend a lot of money.  Soon corona-discharge ozonators came out and were a clear advance in ozonators.  We bought and installed one ourselves for about $179, and we have never had problems with it since.  It produces a constant supply of ozone bubbles which keeps the water clean, crisp, and fresh.

6. When it comes to chemicals, use the “K.I.S.S.” method.  We were told that there were a lot of harsh chemicals out there and that we wanted something easy on the skin.  We researched it a lot, and decided on Baqua-Spa, a system of several chemicals that centered around biguanide.  The Baqua-spa system was not cheap and required a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering along with a Meteorology degree and some Theology thrown in to get it just right.  The water was never clear.  Foam was frequently a problem.  pH was hard to regulate.  We spoke to others who used it, and they told us we were using too much, so we cut way back.  This helped, but still the water was never crystal clear from the moment we added the first bit of Baqua-spa.

Another friend, who incidentally told us about the ozonator, recommended chlorine.  He told us that he used about 3 teaspoons of chlorine when he started his tub with new water, and then one teaspoon each time they were finished using the tub.  That’s it.  We started doing this, and the water is crystal clear for months.  We used to change the water every 2-3 months;  now we change it twice a year, and even then it is clear.  Chlorine is cheap and easy.  Keep it simple, stupid.

7. Buy good filters.  We spent the extra money on low maintenance ceramic filters.  These last many years (we replaced ours for the first time after 8 years).  But the real value in them is that they can be put into your dishwasher and cleaned on a no heat cycle using no detergent.  We stop the cycle once or twice to re-position the four filters which ensures thorough cleaning, but they require no other maintenance.  We have spoken to spa owners who must hose off their filters weekly or monthly and replace them yearly.  We clean them once every 2 months or so effortlessly in the dishwasher.

8. Get your water tested. This sort of goes along with #6, but each time you start up your spa after cleaning.  put your initial chemicals in, let it circulate and heat over night, and then take a sample of the water to a reputable local pool/spa dealer.  They may charge you a nominal fee for testing, but they can immediately tell you if your pH is off or if any of the other readings is out of whack.  We used to buy test kits, but they are not very accurate, go bad quickly, and are expensive.  And if you own a kit you tend to mess with the water too much.  Remember – K.I.S.S.

9. Buy a small sump pump for emptying.  This was good advice that our dealer gave us.  For  about $75 at your home center you can buy a pump that will empty your spa in less than a half hour.  This greatly cuts down cleaning time.  Want to empty it even faster, run the sump pump and set up a second hose as a syphon, provided your tub is a little above ground level or you live on a hill.  It really works and will amaze the kids.

10. No abrasives, and hardly any soap when cleaning.  All you really need is a teflon-safe scrub pad and some warm water.  For stubborn stains at the water line, a little dot of Softscrub might help.

11.  A few other things. 

Buy a good lid, and yes, buy good lifters.  Our lid is in need of replacement, and the lifters are starting to show wear.  But they are 10 years old.

No glass in the tub.  If you are drinking beer, drink from a can or cup.  If you are a wine drinker, a plastic cup will have to do.  If you are a scotch drinker, have your scotch after you get out of the tub.

Drink lots of water while in the tub.  Yes, you sweat while you are in it.

Avoid body lotions and perfume.  They gum up the works and are frankly unpleasant to be around.  Make that friend of yours shower before she gets in, or you will have a slick of that garbage she wears on every surface of the tub and you’ll have to empty it prematurely.

Don’t buy the gimmicks.  They put everything from sound systems to fountains in them, mostly aimed at driving up the price.  You don’t need ’em.

Enjoy some time to yourself. Go sit in the hot tub when the sun is coming up and everyone else is still asleep.  It is a great way to start the day.

Enjoy the time with your family.  We’ve found that we have our most deep conversations while relaxing in the spa.  That is worth its weight in gold.