Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Getting an Audit of the Good Kind: Greening Up with a Home Energy Audit

This past Friday, Beth and I had an audit--but not one of the unpleasant IRS kind.  No, we'd taken advantage of the Virginia energy-efficiency rebate program to replace our furnace and a/c unit earlier in the year, and thanks to the weird way Virginia thought out (or failed to do so, I guess) the program, which included $250 toward an "energy audit," we had to complete everything before filing for the furnace--as once we've claimed part of the Virginia rebates, that's it: no claiming the furnace first, then the audit, and lastly any improvements made thanks to the audit.

As expected, the auditor came by with a blower door and nifty forward-looking infrared camera.  Basically, the blower door--a big fan in a frame which installs in the front door--establishes negative pressure inside the house, and spots of air leakage and other thermal issues thus become easily visible on the FLIR photos.

Heck, with the blower door in place, several of the air leaks were self-evident; simply placing my hand in front of them, I could feel the flow of air through cracks in the caulking around my office window or the light fixtures in the living room.

While we're still waiting for the full report from the energy auditor (at which time I'll finally be able to file for our Virginia rebates), I've already done a huge amount of work on remedying the basics.  Seven tubes of silicone caulk so far: I've applied caulk around the window frames--many of which were quite leaky, even though the windows themselves were not--and around several exterior air leaks, like the front door and the gap between the attic fascia boards and the brick, which let cold air straight into the attic beneath the layer of insulation.  And getting up into the attic gave me the chance to finally get around to wiring a light fixture in the library, and we've ambitions to install several more fixtures (a bedroom ceiling fan, a light fixture over the stairwell, and a couple of spotlights over the picture rail and bird art--all before we seal several air leaks along the tops of the walls and install another layer of fiberglass insulation.

Already, the house feels warmer with the reductions in drafts, and I'm sure our energy bills are going to be falling--and we'll be helping the environment as well.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Celebrating Beth's Birthday, Again and In Style

This year, my wife Beth celebrated a big birthday, leaving behind her 30s.  Much like our Christmas celebrations, we've extended Beth's birthday over a fairly long period (reaching 10 days now from her actual anniversary of coming into the world), and yesterday, our friends Becky and Dwayne took us to our favorite restaurant, 2941 (consistently rated one of the top restaurants in Virginia).

We never turn down a chance to visit 2941 and enjoy the food, though we tried to dissuade Becky as it's not exactly a cheap place to eat!  But she wouldn't take "no" for an answer, so we got to enjoy a fine night of food.  Beth had an absolutely fantastic fish: the "pesceterian" enjoyed a dish of spicy lime-infused Suzuki (Japanese-style sea bass); Becky and Dwayne both opted for an equally good black bass, and I indulged my carnivorous side with the first rabbit I'd had since a 2002 trip to the UK.

Even though the restaurant didn't have the chocolate dessert which graced a recent Washingtonian Magazine cover (as the server explained, they'd begged the magazine to use a photo of a current dessert vs. one from over a year ago), dessert was great.  My only disappointment is that 2941 seems to have discontinued their practice of bringing homemade cotton candy with the check (or should that be "cheque"?), though the English toffee they did serve was good--if not up to the par set by my friend (and trained chef) Matt Perkins' standards for the dessert.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cooking Up Turkey Soup for a Cold

After a visit to family in West Virginia over New Year's, Beth and I both came back with the sniffles, an unfortunate side effect of spending the holiday with a family of teachers and young children, both of which seem to bring home every single bug floating around.  You know that bit about chicken soup helping treat a cold?  I'm hoping turkey soup works similarly, because that's what I've got cooking at the moment.

Back at Christmas, I saved the stripped turkey carcass from my holiday dinner, freezing it along with a portion of turkey meat and gravy for future use.  As with just about any set of bones and related cuttings, it's a fairly simple matter to cook up a stock--basically a broth, but so much better due to the gelatin proteins so-contained.  Even nicer is the wonderful aroma of turkey that fills the house as the stock cooks down at just under a simmer for hours on end.  That stock then serves as the flavorful base for a soup; cooked up with some diced onions, celery, carrots, some pasta, and some of the leftover turkey meat.

I'm looking forward to a bowl already, and hope it helps clear up this cold that much more quickly!  Though I've had worse colds (and have my fingers crossed that the worst part of this one has passed; I'm now in day six of knowing I was sick), this one has been particularly annoying coming when it has, right before Beth's mom and friend Joy come to visit us (last time they were here, incidentally, I had a nasty cold, too).

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Sad Day for the Fauniferous Zoo: Freya's Death from Kidney Failure

This morning when Beth woke me up, sniffling, I knew something was wrong.  Sometime during the night, one of our cockatiels, Freya, had died.  She'd been apparently fine the night before, but Beth found her lying on the bottom of her cage in the morning.  Freya was around 7 years old, young for a cockatiel (Rydia is 14, by comparison, and doing well), and hadn't shown any signs of typical bird illness, so we were both shocked and hurt badly by the loss.

We took Freya to the vet's office for a necropsy, and he found signs of kidney failure in systemic gout and urate crystal buildup throughout her body, and said that many cockatiels in the US suffer from congenital kidney problems.  We'd missed the signs in her droppings--every bird owner knows to "watch the poo" as an indicator of health, but we'd thought her larger droppings more a sign of prospective egg-laying (as it smelled and looked identically to the droppings produced when a hen is in egg-laying mode, as we knew from past experience).

We're very sad of the loss, but are at least rejoiced that the illness wasn't something contagious, and that Freya went peacefully by all outward appearances.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Eat It, Jack Frost: I'm Tired of Winter Already

Less than a month into the official season of winter, I am already, absolutely ready for summer.  Jack Frost, you can kiss my you-know-what: in fact, how about I give you a shotgun and you eat it, with a chaser of antifreeze?

I love a good snow as much as the next person, but after a day or so on the ground--particularly as the stuff melts and refreezes several times--I'm ready for it to be gone.  Not to mention how it accumulates the grime of the road; those six-foot-tall mounds plowed up at random through every parking lot certainly lack the charm of a freshly-made snowman.  My snow itch is scratched by that first real snowfall, and to me, cold weather is worthless bordering on irksome if it's not snowing.

Too, snow and winter weather stops being so pretty and nice when you're a homeowner and gardener, when you have to shovel the walk and the drive every few hours or drive out to help a diabetic kitty in the middle of a blizzard popularly dubbed the "snowpocalypse."  When you worry about ice dams on the roof, where all that snow is going to go when it melts (on top of a soaked swamp of a yard already), and that the power is going to go out because a tree weighed down by the snow and ice snaps and crashes down atop the lines.  Heck, we've still got inches of snow in the front yard and inches of ice in the road!

Speaking of gardening, our poor hollies in the front bed have taken quite a beating in this yet-young winter.  The weight of the snowfalls we've had so far has broken several limbs, and the male pollinator holly spent nearly a week buried completely beneath the snow.  Only a few days after the last branches finally peeked out from the snow, we got socked with an ice storm and freezing rain, though fortunately briefer and less intense than some such weather I've experienced before.  I know they're northern plants and thus are adapted by nature and evolution to survive weather like this, but still, it's no fun to see the hollies pummeled by storm after storm.  Fortunately, the other things we planted seem none the worse for wear, though I did have to rescue the river birch from the uber-wet early December snow.  The red-twig dogwoods are almost arctic, after all, and are so bright and red in the back yard I think I know what we'll be planting along the curb next year.

Ah, wait--I'm not supposed to be happy; this is an angry, annoyed, and grumbly post.  Back on track, then.  I got so tired of the weathermen and anchors on virtually every channel in the days leading up to 12/21 talking about "and it isn't even officially winter yet!" that I wanted to shove a fistful of yellow snow down their throats.  Not that the coming of winter much changed the glee with which they have reported on blizzards and cold snaps that reach all the way to Miami, I suppose.

Over New Year's, we went to visit my family in West Virginia, where several years ago Beth and I spent a white Christmas.  This time 'round, we managed to avoid the worst of the weather on the drive in on the 31st, but after that, the cold set in, and though we'd come prepared for some hiking--one of my favorite pastimes in my hometown--the weather just made that too much of a challenge.  Between the dry, frigid snow which packed after a single footstep into ice (making that walk up the first real hill of the mountainside a near-impossibility, much less the 600-foot gain in altitude to hike from my parents' home to the top of the mountain), the bitter winds, and the sub-freezing temperatures, we got in maybe a 15 minute hike before the doggies started limping on paws which were collecting snowballs between the toes.

The drive back to Virginia and Chateau Papillon was white-knuckled all the way to the Virginia border.  I'd planned to have Beth do some of the driving so I could catch up on lost sleep, but no dice with those conditions.  The WV Department of Transportation had done their jobs, yes, turning the roads completely white with not snow and ice but road salt, but still, any stretch of Interstate 64 which didn't sit soundly in the sun stood two inches deep in slush and ice.  That the temperatures on Sandstone Mountain leaving Raleigh County and all the way through Greenbriar County hovered around 10 degrees Fahrenheit didn't help; road salt simply isn't effective much below 20.  And let's not start on the 50 mile-per-hour wind gusts which buffeted the car the whole way home.

Back in Northern Virginia, the weather is characterized best as cold, cold, and more cold.  Worst, being around a family of school teachers and a young nephew and niece have left me with the same, albeit the sort which makes my throat scratchy and my nose sniffly.

Jack Frost, suck it.  I'm ready for a trip to the Bahamas about now.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Equipping a Young Padawan: Homemade Christmas Gifts for 3-Year-Olds

My three year old nephew Iain has embraced Star Wars rather eagerly: goose-stepping to "The Imperial March" and re-enacting Luke Skywalker's amputation scene from The Empire Strikes Back, and he's able to name any of the dozens of figures both vintage and modern at a glance.  And we make a lot of the gifts for family each year.  Put those together, and a natural Christmas present for this young Padawan was a hand-crafted Jedi outfit.

Several years ago, I re-taught myself how to sew when I made for myself a Jedi costume, and though it's been a couple of years since I last used either the serger or the sewing machine, I dug both out to put together Iain's gift.

I ran into a problem finding a pint-sized pattern and ended up going with an adult one, trimming an extra three or four inches from the dimensions of the extra-small size.  Back when I sewed much more often, I picked up a remnant of a nice Jedi-esque fabric, which though a bit difficult to work with, ended up looking great in the costume--and which emptied out one more bit of the many storage bins in our basement.

Using the serger made the costume something which will stand up to the many trips through the washing machine necessitated by the day-to-day wear and tear of a three-year-old, and I do have to say I did a fine job overall on the outfit: Iain's dad Wayne asked where I'd bought it.  I need to touch things up with a couple of darts in the back to take in a bit of excess size in the shoulders, and I didn't get the obi finished yet as I couldn't find my good loop-turner (the plastic belt Iain's wearing came from a Star Wars toy set I found when cleaning out our storage unit), but overall, I think the Padawan's ready to take up lessons in light saber and the ethics of the light side / dark side dichotomy, don't you?