Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Source for Replacement Globe Lights

I was asked via email about a source for exterior globe lights. This company has them available in multiple sizes (6" - 36"):
You'll want the plastic globes for exterior (the polycarbonate are clear) and glass for interior. If you tell them the cord lengh they'll either supply it or I believe wire it custom.

-- John

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Best Finish for a Natural Wood Door

This is a post from one of my woodworking forums - the discussion was on finishes for a natural wood door and how they never last. This post is about an alternative to using spar varnish and the like and I thought I would share it because I thought it was quite good:

Posted by Jim Kull:

"As a preface, allow me to set the stage. Almost daily there is a posting about clear, exterior finishes for doors, chairs, signs and such. Responses run the gamut from diehard marine finishes to apply a coat of primer and then paint. Each of these has a bit of a problem. Marine finishes are not always the easiest to find and it grieves me to think of a lovely oak, teak, mahogany, fir, redwood or similar nice wood door painted in mauve goop.

Bob from Florida inspired me with his continuing and accurate statements about the failings of a clear coat and the advantages of a good quality exterior paint. I decided after lots of reflection that he really was right but there was always the picture of mauve in my mind. Sooooooooo, how could one take advantage of his advice and yet capitalize on the beauty of a nice wood.
I began to reflect on the characteristics of paint. Now, comes the boredom.

There were several things I knew about paint. Exterior paints contain a mildewcide and a fungicide that a varnish does not. The best quality paints will contain a UV protectorant and trans-oxide pigments in very high percentages. Almost all paint is custom mixed by the store. The retailer maintains a large supply of base products that are used to achieve the desired color. There are generally 4 base products and the specific one for your paint is determined by your color choice. These base products are either named or numbered. They are named pastel, deep, tint and neutral. If numbered it is cleverly 1, 2, 3 and 4 with the exception of Olympic who numbers 1, 2, 3 and 5. Olympic is unaware that 4 comes before 5. Pastel and/or 1 is virtually a pure white and used for the lightest of colors. The others are slightly color altered from white and more translucent than pastel. These are used for succeedingly deeper colors. All of this comes to neutral, 4 and/or 5. These are clear and used for the darkest colors. In the can they are somewhat opaque but dry more or less clear.

Now comes the testing. I bought 4 oak exterior doors. Each door was given one coat of the same MinWax Stain. On 3 of the doors, I applied 2 coats of "paint" to the 6 sides of each door (3 coats on the top and bottom edges). Each of these three doors had a different type of exterior neutral, 4 or 5 base. The fourth door was finished with a common spar varnish from my local friendly paint/hardware store. The bases for the 3 painted doors were an exterior semi-gloss acrylic, an exterior semi-gloss oilbased polyurethane floor paint and a semi-gloss oilbased trim and siding paint.

The doors were set up, slightly inclined, in mostly direct sunlight under a pecan tree in the backyard. My wife just loved that one. Daily, the sprinklers managed to hit the doors. The birds in the pecan tree used the doors for target practice. And, yes Steve, the dogs did anoint the doors on a regular basis. My blonde Cocker, Zazu, was particularly enamored with the doors. Over the course of the test the doors experienced lots of Texas sunlight, rain and snow. The temperature went from below freezing to over 100. The advantage to the inclined position of the doors was the snow, ice, water from the sprinklers and the rain tended to collect in the raised panel areas. I feel these doors were subjected to far more severe environmental conditions than would be expected from normal use.

The results were interesting. The spar varnish looked fabulous but after about 2 weeks it began to develop small cracks. In rapid order the door began to turn black, started to mold and the smell was enough to knock a buzzard off of a manure wagon. The waterbased acrylic is milky in the can like a waterbased poly. It dried to a more or less water clear surface but was a bit cloudy. It tended to wash out the stain a bit. Over time it became cloudier and ultimately become almost white. But, it remained solid and protected the wood. The oilbased bases are also a bit opaque in the can but dried to a clear finish that is almost identical to a spar varnish - they added an amber tone to the doors. Both the poly floor paint and the trim and siding paint remained "clear" over the entire test period.

The testing came to an end with a bit of encouragement. My wife said something clever like, "Get those damned doors out of the backyard!". She does not understand science. The floor poly had some minor checking and a thinned coat of the same base over the surface made that disappear. The door with the oilbased trim and siding paint was perfect other than it had lost a bit of the gloss.

So, I am with Bob - paint the door. My preference is the oilbased products. If you are predisposed to a waterbased use an acrylic rather than latex.

One thing you will find when you go out shopping for your product is a lack of knowledge on the part of the salesperson. Not many of these folk are aware that their neutral or 4 base will dry clear. If you want to have some fun, spring it on them. They will suggest you are full of Donkey Dust. Ask them to shake a can and put some on a stir stick. Dry it and voila, it is clear."

The Sherwin-Williams # is 6403-25767(gallon).
I have found that thinning helps a lot. Test on some scraps before hand.
I have been happy with the results.

End of copied post. John

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Northcrest and the Development of the Ranch House

There was some mention of Northcrest in the recent DOCOMOMO "Consider the Ranch" lecture held at DWR in Buckhead on the 14th. I posted some notes on the Modusmodern blog:

-- John

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Manage your Recycle-ables!

Since doing the talk about composting with the garden club (see previous post), I thought I would hit on some other, similar topics. The idea here is to do things that are environmentally friendly and at the same time easy and/or fun to do. I think we all have at least a vague idea about doing things that aren't harmful to the environment, and some of us take this to the extreme - I think that as with anything, "if it's a pain in the ass to do, it probably won't get done" (we'll call that John's Postulate of Maximum Resistance - JPMR - basically if it takes a lot of effort you'll never have time to do it). In our household we do the following:

  1. Composting - placing organic materials (i.e. table scraps and lawn clippings) into piles outside to allow them to decompose into dirt (added benefit of making good humus to append the garden and flower beds).
  2. Recycling - collecting materials that are normally thrown in the rubbish bin and allowing Dekalb County to collect them for reprocessing. This has the huge benefit of minimizing what goes into landfills
  3. Rain Barrel - collecting the gutter runoff into a barrel (or barrels) and using the water in flower beds.
  4. Unused item donation - we periodically amass items that are no longer of use and place them into two piles: 1. Yard sale items and 2. Donation items (often the yard sale items turn into donation items if they don't sell). Better items we've been putting on Craigslist for a small recovery on the initial amount spent to purchase - I've also had very good success in getting rid of unwanted items by posting them as "free" on Craislist - it's amazing the number of responses one gets.

When I read back over the list, it seems like a lot of work (back to JPMR!) but it's all about the way you organize yourself and how you approach it from and attitude and mindset. You have to make things easy or John's Postulate will kick in over and over again and you'll never have time to do it. So how do we make it easy?

  1. Composting - there are really two components that come into play here - when you're preparing food it's so much easier to just pitch the scraps into the garbage or garbage disposal - so how do you make this convenient enough that you'll save the scraps? My solution is to keep a small covered bid on the counter next to the sink - it holds about 1/2 gallon of material and has a hinged lid - found it at Big Lots for a couple of dollars. You keep adding stuff to it until it's full and then take it out to the compost pile - I put all vegetable clippings, coffee grounds and filters, and used paper towels (provided they don't have any chemicals in there) - try to keep out stuff that won't break down and no proteins (eggshells are good though).
  2. Recycling - believe it or not, Dekalb actually has one of the better programs in Atlanta - it took them a few years to figure it out, but it's very good and they both recycle more than most programs and they also do much of the sorting. So here, as with composting, you have to make things easy. I keep a small plastic garbage can next to the main garbage can - whenever i finish a bottle I do a quick rinse and add it to the recycling can - do this with any plastic container, newspapers, junk mail and just about anything - you do need to know what they'll take and what they wont - short list is all paper, all cardboard, all glass, all plastic, Styrofoam and metal cans (both aluminum and steel). Once your inside can is full, take it to bins you have outside - you should have at least two, one for paper/cardboard and the other for everything else (glass, metal, plastic). Every week or two, you'll have enough to warrant a pickup, which is on Wednesdays in Northcrest. Dekalb responds to blue bins or bags (you can either buy them from Dekalb or someplace else) - if they see a big blue pile they'll pick it up on recycling day. They further sort things in their processing plant.
  3. Rain Barrel - I've been experimenting with a commercially purchased barrel that's 80 gallons - cost me about $200 shipped to the house. You can actually go on the cheap and pick up one or more of those smurf blue containers that the local bottlers use to transport soda syrup - they're usually only a couple of dollars. You then cut a hole in the top and build an overflow catch-basin on top (the basin should have some rocks on a screen, so the trash gets filtered out - an overflow pipe diverts the water when the container gets full - put this right under your downspout or at the end of your drain tile (connected to your downspout). Place a spigot near the bottom of the barrel and attach a short length of hose to fill watering cans.
  4. Unused Item Donation - we keep adding items we don't want to an area under the stairs - when it gets too full (like you can't put anything else in there) we look it over and decide if it's yards ale or donation time (most items get donated). You want a spot that's out of the way, but still seen regularly - so it's not forgotten. Clothing recycling (especially shoes since they take so long to break down) helps the environment by keeping items out of landfills - if you aren't really using an item it's just taking up space -get rid of it!! Once you have enough items you can call up one of several groups for a free pickup - I generally schedule the pickup and leave the stuff at the end of the carport. It's gone when I get home.

I hope the above will give everyone some ideas on how to make less trash and be greener, environmentally conscious, better neighbors. Nothing I've talked about takes too much effort and the good feeling you get from participating is worth it's weight in gold (it certainly keeps JPMR at bay!). Contact me if you want more information or have additional ideas or comments.

--- John

Monday, July 30, 2007

Composting Guide

I was asked by the Northcrest Hoe 'n Hope Garden Club to speak to the group about composting - I assembled this guide for them and hope that others might find it useful - note that I scabbed most of the images and information from various web sources and don't claim most of the content - I do think it's very accurate, however.


Composting is the decomposition of plant remains and other once-living materials to make an earthy, dark, crumbly substance that is excellent for adding to houseplants or enriching garden soil. It is the way to recycle your yard and kitchen wastes, and is a critical step in reducing the volume of garbage needlessly sent to landfills for disposal. It's easy to learn how to compost.

Technically speaking, composting is the process of producing compost through aerobic decomposition of biodegradable organic matter (basically, mixing vegetable and other materials with air and water so they break-down into humus) – this is the controlled decomposition of organic matter. Rather than allowing nature to take its slow course, a composter provides the best environment for composting to occur. To encourage the most active microbes, a compost pile needs the correct mix of the following ingredients:
  • Carbon (“brown” materials – see below)

  • Nitrogen (“green” materials – see below)

  • Oxygen (in the case of aerobic composting)

  • Water

Decomposition happens even in the absence of some of these ingredients, but not as quickly or as pleasantly. (For example, vegetables in a plastic bag will decompose, but the lack of air encourages the growth of anaerobic microbes, which produce foul odors.

The goal of a composting system
The goal in a composting system is to provide a healthy environment and nutrition for bacteria (the rapid decomposers). The most rapid composting occurs with the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio of between 25 and 30 to 1 by dry chemical weight. In other words, the ingredients placed in the pile should contain 25 to 30 times as much carbon as nitrogen. For example, grass clippings average about 19-to-1 and dry autumn leaves average about 55-to-1. Mixing equal parts by volume approximates the ideal range. Commercial-grade composting operations pay strict attention to this ratio. For backyard composters, however, the charts of carbon and nitrogen ratios in various ingredients and the calculations required to get the ideal mixture can be intimidating, so many rules of thumb exist to guide composters in approximating this mixture. My favorite is to alternate a 6 inch layer of Carbon or “brown” materials with a 6 inch layer of Nitrogen or “green” materials – give it a drink and a little “shake” and you’re done.

Materials for composting
Given enough time to die, all biodegradable material will compost. However, not all compost materials are appropriate for backyard composting. Most backyard systems will not reach high enough temperatures to kill pathogens and deter vermin, so pet droppings, non-vegetarian animal manure, meat scraps, and dairy products are best left out of the pile.

High-carbon sources provide the cellulose needed by the composting bacteria for conversion to sugars and heat, while high-nitrogen sources provide the most concentrated protein, which allow the compost bacteria to thrive.

Some ingredients with higher carbon content (“brown” materials):
  • Dry, straw-type material, such as hosta stems

  • Autumn leaves

  • Sawdust and wood chips

  • Some paper and cardboard (such as corrugated cardboard or newsprint with soy-based inks)

Some ingredients with higher nitrogen content (“green” materials):
  • Green plant material (fresh or wilted) such as crop residues, hay, grass clippings, weeds

  • Animal manures (choose vegetarian horse manure, cow manure, llama manure, etc.)

  • Fruit and vegetable trimmings

  • Seaweeds

  • Used Coffee grounds

Mixing the materials as they are added increases the rate of decomposition, but it can be easier to place the materials in alternating layers, approximately 6 inches thick, to help estimate the quantities. Keeping carbon and nitrogen sources separated in the pile can slow down the process, but decomposition will occur in any event.

Greasy food waste and wastes from meat, dairy products, and eggs should not be used in household compost because they tend to attract unwanted vermin and they do not appropriately decompose in the time required. However, eggshells are a good source of nutrients for the compost pile and the soil although they typically take more than one year to decompose.

The Compost Pile

There are several different methods of composting – I’ll focus on the simplest - backyard composting by creating a compost “pile”. It’s called a pile because in its simplest form, you can stack materials in a pile, much like a hay pile, and left on its own (provided there is regular rain to “water” it) it will eventually decompose and become compost. Even if you contain the pile (by fencing it in with wood or chicken wire, or buying commercial containers), you are still “piling” materials, so calling it a compost pile is still appropriate. The essentials to a good pile, is to place it where the sun can get to it at least part of the day or in full exposure. The sun helps to heat the pile and activate the microbes that are doing the work – even without sun, the material will eventually decompose, but the warmth makes it happen much faster, especially in winter (a good pile will actually generate its own heat as the microbes turn the materials into humus).
For a good, fast, working pile, you need to consider the following:
  1. Air
    Composting microbes are aerobic -- they can't do their work well unless they are provided with air. Without air, anaerobic (non-air needing) microbes take over the pile. They do cause slow decomposition, but tend to smell like putrefying garbage! For this reason, it's important to make sure that there are plenty of air passageways into your compost pile. Some compost ingredients, such as green grass clippings or wet leaves, mat down very easily into slimy layers that air cannot get through. Other ingredients, such as straw, don't mat down easily and are very helpful in allowing air into the center of a pile. To make sure that you have adequate aeration for your pile and its microbes, thoroughly break up or mix in any ingredients that might mat down and exclude air. You can also turn the pile to get air into it, which means completely breaking it apart with a spade or garden fork and then piling it back together in a more 'fluffed-up' condition.

  2. Water
    Ideally, your pile should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge to fit the needs of compost microbes. At this moisture level, there is a thin film of water coating every particle in the pile, making it very easy for microbes to live and disperse themselves throughout the pile. If your pile is drier than this, it won't be very good microbial habitat, and composting will be slowed significantly. If your pile is a great deal wetter, the sodden ingredients will be so heavy that they will tend to mat down and exclude air from the pile, again slowing the composting process (and perhaps creating anaerobic odor problems). If you are using dry ingredients, such as autumn leaves or straw, you'll need to moisten them as you add them to the pile. Kitchen fruit and vegetable wastes generally have plenty of moisture, as do fresh green grass clippings and garden thinnings. Watch out for far-too-soggy piles in wet climates (a tarp may help to keep rain off during wet weather). In dry climates, it may be necessary to water your pile occasionally to maintain proper moisture.

  3. Food
    In broad terms, there are two major kinds of food that composting microbes need.
    Materials with higher Carbon content or 'Browns' are dry and dead plant materials such as straw, dry brown weeds, autumn leaves, and wood chips or sawdust. These materials are mostly made of chemicals that are just long chains of sugar molecules linked together. As such, these items are a source of energy for the compost microbes. Because they tend to be dry, browns often need to be moistened before they are put into a compost system.

    Materials with higher Nitrogen content or 'Greens' are fresh (and often green) plant materials such as green weeds from the garden, kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, coffee grounds and tea bags, fresh horse manure, etc. Compared to browns, greens have more nitrogen in them. Nitrogen is a critical element in amino acids and proteins, and can be thought of as a protein source for the billions of multiplying microbes.

    A good mix of browns and greens is the best nutritional balance for the microbes. This mix also helps out with the aeration and amount of water in the pile. Browns, for instance, tend to be bulky and promote good aeration. Greens, on the other hand, are typically high in moisture, and balance out the dry nature of the browns.

  4. Heat
    A common misunderstanding about compost piles is that they must be hot to be successful. This just isn't true. If you have good aeration and moisture, and the proper ingredient mix, your pile will decompose just fine at temperatures of 50 degrees F or above.

    Hotter piles will decompose a bit faster, however. One way to understand why this is so is to realize that the heat in a hot pile is the result of the collective body heat of billions of microbes that are busy digesting the ingredients in the pile. Generally speaking, a hotter pile means more microbes or conditions that allow the microbes to have faster metabolisms, and therefore a faster composting process. If you'd like to keep your pile as warm as possible, consider the following:

    For a pile to get hot and stay hot for a long period of time, the typical minimum size for the pile is one cubic meter (a cube one meter, or about three feet, on a side). A pile this size has plenty of mass in which those billions of heat-generating microbes can live, yet is also large enough that the center of the pile is well-insulated by the material surrounding it. Smaller piles just cannot insulate themselves well enough to remain hot for long, if at all. You can also provide additional insulation to a pile by stacking bales of hay or straw, or bags of dry autumn leaves, around your bin system. Some people even used stacked hay bales to make bin systems (this kind of bin will slowly compost itself, of course).

So what do I suggest?

I think everyone has room for at least one pile – if you haven’t composted before, I recommend that it be 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep – the goal is to stack materials on the pile to a height of at least 3 feet – this can take some time depending on what you put into it. Once you have a location that gets some sun, in an out-of-the-way place but still easily accessible, you can just start building the pile “loose” to see how it works. Or you can contain the pile using fencing, old wood palettes, or one of those plastic store-bought compost containers – I have two of those myself:

Once you’ve decided on a place, I like to put some sticks or limbs on the bottom so that the pile get’s some air – this is optional – just something I do so the pile works faster – some of your material should touch the earth – that’ll encourage bugs and earthworms to come into your pile which is beneficial. Start with a layer of leftover autumn leaves – ideally, the smaller the particles are when you start, the quicker they will turn into humus – I leave beds in the yard with some leaves so I’ll have something to add to the pile during the other seasons – when I’m ready for new “brown” material, I run over the leaves with a lawnmower that has a bag – this gets dumped to a depth of about 6 inches in the pile. I water the pile every time I add a major layer to it, so at this point wet it down. The next time I mow, I add the clippings (“green” material) to a depth of 6 inches, right on top of the first layer, and wet it down – you’ll notice that the first layer has compressed a bit – that means the pile is starting to work. I repeat this cycle over and over until the pile gets to be about 3 1/2 feet high. That’s the basics and if you do this, the pile will turn into humus within about a season without doing anything else to it.
To really boost the pile, and get workable humus within a few months, I do some additional work to it – this is often referred to as a “managed compost pile.”
  1. First, I add all those vegetable clippings and peels from food preparation. I’ve got a small plastic tub that I keep on the counter – as I make meals, all the clippings and peels go into the tub, along with egg shells and the filters and grounds from my morning coffee – all these are good for the pile (break up the egg shells to speed up decomposition). So about every 4-6 days, I dump the tub into the pile – sometimes more or less often, and everything that is vegetable goes into the pile (I usually don’t add cooked vegetables – only those that are the remains of raw like carrot stems, etc). When I add this, I add a handful of leaves or whatever I have on hand on top to cover it up in case it’s started to break down and get “stinky.”

  2. I turn the pile at least once a week – this usually involves placing a pitch-fork in and turning it from side-to-side when the pile is small – when the pile gets larger, I’ll “flip” the pile into a second pile to keep things “mixed-up.” After turning, I wet the pile down unless it’s already wet. Autumn leaves usually compress down more and take longer to compost unless you spend time turning – the more air that is in there the better.

  3. Usually the materials at the bottom of the pile are more “ready” than the materials at the top – it’s convenient to divide it in half (place the top into a new pile) and add to it as the start of a new pile – the first pile is ready for use/straining. I actually prefer to have two main piles (I spend the most time on these) as short-term piles (meaning they turn into humus the fastest, but take the most work), and a third pile that I don’t spend much time on (I let this one sit in another area of the yard and let nature “do its thing.” On that third pile, I don’t turn it or water it, but towards the spring I peel off the top and get all the good soil at the bottom – this gets strained for the garden and the new pile becomes my long-term pile. That third pile is also located at the bottom of the yard so it’s out of site.

  4. Whenever you can, try to chop up your materials into smaller pieces – don’t spend a lot of time doing this, but if it’s convenient, break up things with your hands or use the lawnmower – the smaller the pieces, the faster the pile turns into humus.
  5. If your pile is working well, you will feel the heat coming off it even when it’s cold outside. Decomposition occurs most efficiently when the temperature inside the pile is between 104 degrees F and 131 degrees F. You usually wont’ see temperatures like these unless you keep close tabs in managing your pile. Compost thermometers are available at garden shops and nurseries. It is best not to turn the pile while it is between these temperatures, but rather when the temperature is below 104 degrees F or above 131 degrees F. This keeps the pile operating at its peak. Most disease pathogens die when exposed to 131 degrees for 10-15 minutes, though some weed seeds are killed only when they're heated to between 140 degrees and 150 degrees. If weed seeds are a problem, let the pile reach 150 degrees during the first heating period, then drop back down to the original temperature range. Maintaining temperatures above 131 degrees can kill the decomposing microbes.

  6. Since you are keeping close tabs on the pile, you’ll see when it or a portion is ready for use. Finished compost is dark in color and has an earthy smell (like the smell of soil). Usually, it's difficult to recognize any of the original ingredients, although bits of hard-to-decompose materials (such as straw) sometimes can be seen. There is no single point at which compost is finished -- it's a bit more subjective than that. For many outdoor garden applications, for instance, it can be fine to use compost that still has a few recognizable bits of leaves or straw -- it will finish rotting in the soil. If you plan to use compost in seed-starting mixes, though, you're best off having a well-finished compost, because seedling roots may be attacked by decomposer microbes if the roots contact unfinished compost. If that’s the case, strain your compost through some type of open mesh screen – about ½ inch openings are best (I use a frame with 1/2 inch square chicken wire and it works fine).

-- John

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Welcome to NorthcrestModern's Blog

I decided to create this blog as a better way to publish my ideas and experiences regarding the Northcrest subdivision and the NorthcrestModern website. I thought that in this format I could be less formal and write with less regard to formal content - it let's me write more about what I'm feeling and about my opinions than the more formal website - it also provides a venue for reader comments and built-in organization, navigation and article archiving - all tasks that are onerous to the webmaster. Enjoy and feel free to comment.

-- John