Saturday, July 16, 2011

Replacing a Fluorescent Light Ballast

We have a 2-bulb 4 foot fluorescent light in our laundry room. I don't like it. It buzzes. It flickers when it turns on. One day, it didn't just flicker for a second or two -- it flickered for about 10 seconds before coming on. The next time I turned it on, one bulb only came on partially (it was very dim) and it seemed that the buzzing was louder than usual. Turning it off and on didn't help.  Pfft. Time to replace the bulbs? Or worse?

I soon learned that there were two possibilities; either (1) the bulbs needed replacing, or (2) the ballast needed replacing. There was also the possibility of a faulty starter, but it sounded like starters are only found on older fixtures (mine is 20 years old and looks reasonably modern).

So, first, I removed the cover, took out the bulbs and went to Home Depot to get replacements. My bulbs were 34W 4 foot T12 "energy saver"s. As I understand it, wattage is usually 10 times the length in feet; so normally one would use a 40W bulb with a 4 foot fixture. But, I wanted to get an exact match since I didn't know better at the time. Note that the "T" number is an important one---it tells you the diameter of the end of the bulb. The number is in terms of 1/8ths of an inch. So "T12" means 1.5 inches and "T8" means 1 inch.

I had someone help me find 34W 4 foot T12 bulbs at Home Depot and turned in my old bulbs for recycling (my Home Depot accepts fluorescent bulbs for recycling). I took them home, installed them in the fixture, flipped the switch... and groaned when neither bulb came on completely. Both bulbs turned on very dimly. Even worse than before! Did I get the right bulb? Maybe I should have gotten 40W's? No, I was pretty sure I got the right bulb. And, I had earlier noticed that the old bulbs showed signs of age---they were both very dark at one end. It was time to try replacing the ballast.

I opened up the fixture and found that the ballast did look old.  It was large and heavy. But, the wiring looked clean. Two red wires went to one socket. Two blue wires went to another socket (at the same end). Two yellow wires went to a socket at the other end and short white wires connected the remaining socket to the yellow-wire socket. I was a bit puzzled about how to remove the wires. I couldn't yank them out of the sockets. I opened up a socket and learned that they have one-way securements---you can't take them out from the same side that you put them in. I cut all the wires and to get the end piece out, I had to pull through the back of the sockets which required me damaging the sockets. So, I made a note to buy new sockets in addition to a ballast on my next trip to Home Depot.

After I dismantled everything, I took the ballast and one socket to Home Depot. Someone helped me find the right ballast. I'm glad I had someone help me because I didn't notice that my first instinct was to buy a T8 ballast, whereas I needed a T12 ballast. I didn't realize the bulb diameter would matter, but it apparently does. It's also important to make sure you get a ballast for the right size fixture (4 foot in my case) and correct number of bulbs (2 in my case).  It's also worth checking that the bulbs you use (34W T12, in my case) are listed on the ballast---they were. After finding the correct ballast, I got two packages of fluorescent sockets to replace mine---they matched the one I had brought exactly. Btw, I was happy to discover that the new ballast was the same size as the old ballast but a lot lighter. It also had similar notches which are used to secure the ballast to the fixture.

Installing the new ballast and sockets was relatively easy. I first hooked up two sockets with the left over white wires. These were not provided by the new ballast. I then secured the four new sockets, being sure to press them in as far as they would go. I then hooked up the bulb wires, yellow, red and blue.  Finally, I made sure the light switch was OFF and used the left over wire nuts to connect the power wires. Then, the moment of truth came... I turned the switch, and... light! One bulb came on quickly; the other was a bit slow, had a dim part in the middle and had a slight oscillating flicker. But, it gradually went away. And, after putting the covers back on and turning on the light on again, I don't notice any difference between the bulbs---they look good as new. Also, one thing I didn't notice was a buzzing noise. No buzzing! Why didn't I do this two years ago when we bought the house! Ah, well, better late than never.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Light Sockets

I've been learning a lot about recessed lights lately. We've had some replaced and we're having a few more replaced shortly. I wanted to tell my electrician that I wanted something with a standard size light socket, but I didn't know the technical name for that. Today, I happened upon the Edison screw Wikipedia page. Apparently, there are only a few standard U.S. socket sizes: E12 (candelabra), E17 (intermediate), E26 (standard), and E39 (mogul). The E26 is far-and-away the most common size. E12 and E17 are used in specialty fixtures and E39 is used for street lamps and other high-output lamps that you're unlikely to find around a home. My electrician said that the RL trim will fit a PAR30, which is a flood-light size---the E26 is such a common socket that he didn't even think I'd be asking about it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Interor Walls: Drywall versus Blueboard

Until recently, I didn't think there was much difference between different types of interior home walls except for the really old styles like lathe-and-plaster. We recently had some plaster work done by a very nice guy by the name of Michael Gogliormella. He explained to us the difference between drywall and blueboard:

  • Drywall is meant to be (primed and) painted. After it is attached to studs, joint compound is used to smooth-out the gaps.
  • Blueboard is not a final surface---a layer of plaster must be applied (and allowed to try) before it can be (primed and) painted. It is good for bathrooms because the plaster creates a waterproof seal between the interior space and the blueboard.
Here is a discussion which provides more comparison between drywall and blueboard. One thing worth noting is that it is possible for an amateur to install drywall that is on-par with professionals given some practice and plenty of time. The same cannot be said for blueboard/plaster since plaster has a short working time and is not easy to apply and smooth. Also, blueboard has a special outer-layer for adhering to plaster. Once plaster is applied to blueboard, it cannot be removed without damaging the blueboard.

It's a bit annoying that there are two different names for wall construction styles. In the past, I've mainly heard the term "drywall" used for any sort of modern interior wall. But, Michael balks at that term and says he would never use it for blueboard/plaster. Is there a better term for interior walls besides "drywall"?

P.S. I've wondered what is the right term for people who install and seal driveways. Checkbook uses the term "pavers". I've also seen signs for "sealcoating".

Friday, May 6, 2011

Water Hardness

I've seen a bit more mineral deposit build-up at our house in Natick than I did at our condo in Belmont, so I've been wondering what the hardness level of Natick water is. I think I just got the answer. I just received our town's annual water report and one of the items they sample is CaCO3 which is considered a measure of hardness. Wikipedia says that Hardness is usually measured as a combination of Calcium and Magnesium, but I'm guessing the number my town reports is a pretty good judge. They report 94.3 ppm CaCO3. According to Wikipedia, it sounds like this is the same as milligrams per Liter. Wikipedia provides a scale of hardness levels:

Soft0–60 mg/L
Moderately Hard61–120 mg/L
Hard121–180 mg/L
Very Hard181+ mg/L
So, we have moderately hard water here in Natick. No wonder I see more mineral buildup---I believe we had soft water in Belmont. I'm guessing this is due to the fact that Natick water comes from local wells whereas Belmont water comes via the MWRA which gets its supplies from the Quabbin and other western Mass. reservoirs

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How to Dispose of a Mercury Thermometer

I just replaced a mercury-based thermostat in my house. Mercury is common in older, non-digital thermostats. Mine is Honeywell and is made in the shape of a circle. The mercury is in a small glass tube with three wires attached. Mercury can be quite dangerous and needs to be handled carefully. Fortunately, my local Natick Health Department accepts mercury thermostats for proper disposal and even offers a free digital thermostat in exchange. From what I've read, most local governments will accept mercury-based thermostats for disposal like Natick.

Monday, April 4, 2011


It seems that April is the start of the lawn care season in New England. I purchased my first two installments of fertilizer over the weekend and also purchased two 40 lb. bags of lime since soil here tends to be more acidic than grass likes. I think I'll also need to spread a grub control product. From what I've heard, grubs are a common problem here in New England and I've seen at least one spot of lawn damage that I can't otherwise explain. That UConn article says that June is about the best time to apply a chemical treatment and recommends watering before (to bring grubs to the surface) and after (to draw the chemical down to the grubs) application to maximize effectiveness.

Friday, March 11, 2011

No More Yellow Pages!

A colleague at work just told me about Yellow Pages Opt-Out which allows you to (de-)select the local Yellow Pages books you receive. I'm always annoyed when they drop they off since it just means I have to get rid of them. Recycling works, but I'd much rather they simply not give me one. With the Opt-Out site, I can tell the publishers that I don't want any YellowPages. It determines the local Yellow Pages you might receive based on your addresses and allows you to select 0-3 copies of each. There are some minor usability issues with the site, but it seems to work and I was able to select zero copies of each without much trouble. If Yellow Pages annoy you too, I'd advice you to hit this Opt-Out site.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How To Operate Your Home Articles

Tom Feiza aka Mr. FixIt has posted a number of excellent articles on house maintenance. It sounds like these are largely excerpted from his book, How To Operate Your Home.

Update (3/25/11): I bought Mr. Feiza's book and gave it a read. It includes lots of good tips and diagrams. It's definitely worth the money. One thing I learned: I might be able to reduce the water hammer noise from my fancy front-load washing machine by installing a water hammer arrester, which is a tube attached to the water line half-filled with air to cushion the sudden changes caused by my washing machine.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Damn Ice Dams

The first winter in our house wasn't bad---temperatures and snowfall lingered around normal and snow often melted within a week or two of when it fell. My major concern was reducing our heating bill. Since then, we've replaced a leaky window, removed a leaky in-wall, window-style A/C, and added insulation to about 1/2 of the house walls. These improvements have helped reduce our oil usage by about 25%. But, I wasn't prepared for this year's surprise: ice dams.

This winter hasn't been so kind. We received about 6 feet of snow in little more than a month. And, for a span of 20 days and 4 1/2 feet of snow, the temperatures have stayed low enough that almost nothing has melted. The piles are high enough that's its getting difficult to clear my driveway.

Last Monday, my wife called me to say that there was water leaking into the house around a window. Ack! I knew we had significant ice build-up around the gutters, but I didn't think it was that bad. I scheduled an appointment for Thursday (since it was supposed to snow Tues & Wed) to have our roof cleaned and decided that I needed to do some roof cleaning myself. So, I dragged my shovel up on the roof with the help of my wife and I started shoveling. Four hours later, I had the roof mostly clean. I was afraid of damaging shingles and/or gutters by trying to break/remove ice, so there were still patches of ice on the roof and plenty of ice in the gutters, but I figured getting rid of the snow was at least a huge improvement. On Thursday, Willard cleared the snow that had fallen Tues/Wed and also cleared off much of the ice. After the recent warming and rains we've had, my roof is almost completely clear of snow and ice.

I knew that our low-pitch roof, cathedral ceilings and recessed lights contributed to ice dams. I now realize that skylights, vents and chimneys also contribute---anything that allows heat to come in contact with snow on the roof contributes to ice dams. This is the best article I've seen about ice dams. It provides a good explanation of how they form, why they lead to water in the house and how to prevent them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Snowblower Repair

A year ago, a clutch cable partially broke on my Craftsman snowblower. My most excellent neighbor helped me rig a fix that worked for a year. But, last Tuesday, it slipped out again and a push nut fell off, making a spacer handle come loose. I was able to put the handle back together and applied the same fix to the clutch cable. But, I think it's only a matter of time before things break badly enough that I'm not able to hack them back together.

My neighbor told me about a power equipment and supply store across town in West Natick. But, I wasn't able to find it the one time I tried to find it, and, with two kids, it's hard to find the time to go searching again. Lucky for me, today I discovered Sears Parts Direct. All I had to do was enter the part numbers from my snow blower manual, pay for the parts and $8 shipping. And, voila, they're on their way to my front door! I know what you're thinking---that sort of thing was exciting 5-10 years ago, but today? C'mon, Amazon has just about everything. Sure, but have you tried buying a snowblower part online? Search for the part number and manufacturer name and you're likely to find... nothing. There just ain't sufficient volume in snowblower parts for Amazon to start selling them and many manufacturers just don't have the incentive to create a web site that makes part buying easy. So, I'm pleasantly surprised that Craftsman/Sears makes it so easy.