Terrific Broth

Beijinger in Denver | 北京人在丹佛

Solar Chandelier for a Romantic Anniversary Dinner

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By tomorrow, Slav and I will have been married for four years. Four years! It went by so fast, but we also accomplished so much together – like getting the second dog, starting new careers, moving to Colorado, and getting our first house. For our anniversary celebration, we are gonna go to a highly rated Polish Restaurant. Then we are gonna drink some nice craft beers in our backyard.

The “new” old fence made us extremely happy about our backyard and totally brought a whole wave of backyard fever, especially after Slav got his dream grill. Since we do not have patio furniture yet, dinner-for-two will not happen for anniversary this year. But I do want to make our evening ore romantic, by adding some nice lighting to our completely dark backyard.

What about this solar powered chandelier?

We have a chandelier which used to hung over our dining table in our NC apartment. There is also a big apple tree in the middle of the yard with horizontal lower branches. It is meant-to-be.

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We hung it up on the branches to test the look. I liked it. Slav on the other hand, thought this was the most white-trashy thing ever. He even called his mom (!) to report how trashy I had become. Ironically, mom liked my idea and was totally on my side. #nastywomenstaytogether

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Is it trashy? For someone who wears cargo shorts 24/7? I think not.

With MIL’s blessing, I got to work. The current candle tubes were too tall to mount solar light directly on, so I had to find a way to make them shorter.

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Each candle tube consists of a white plastic cover on the outside, a paper filler against the plastic cover, and an electrical assembly in the center.

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The plastic tubing and paper filler simply slid off, leaving the electrical assembly which were screwed on to the chandelier arms.

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I cut the wires near the candle cup , then screwed off the assembly by twisting the bottom screw:

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For our particular chandelier, I ended up with the wire assembly, a washer, and the candle cup for each arm.

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A wire cutter is all you need really to get o this step. A pair of scissors will do too.

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The bottom screw from each electrical wire assembly holds down the washer and candle cup tightly. So I snipped them off to reuse them. It was also a great base to glue the solar lights on:

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When I snipped these screws off, I left a bit lip with the bottom screw. After it secured into its place, I bent the lips a bit, so it can cuddle around the end of a solar light and hold it in place:

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We got these lights off the internet. Make sure to test them before gluing them to the chandelier!

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You can bend the metal lip in any direction to accommodate the solar lights. In our case, they held the solar light in place and straight, which made gluing process a breeze.

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A dash of super glue would do. We held the solar lights in place with some tape, let the whole thing dry on the patio overnight.  But really, 15 minutes should be enough if you are using a fast-dry glue.

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I took the tape off next morning and these lights were holding on pretty well.

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Isn’t it pretty? We used a long chain to hang it so we could lower it if we wish. Our dinner will be so fancy! Happy anniversary, Slav!

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We Got a New Panel!

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We have known since the inspection day that we needed a new electrical panel. In fact, the ranch house’s electrical system is so outdated that it needs a complete overhaul. Here are a few major problems we have, just to name it:

1. We have the famously terrible Federal Pacific Stab Lok breakers. They have been known to be problematic for a long time. It has been reported that some of them failed to trip when needed, which could be a potential safety hazard. There was even a class action suit in New Jersey on this product. Recommendation: replacement.

2. Our panel is full to the brim. There is no space to hook up anything else. Since we plan to install a HVAC soon, the panel has to be upgraded.

3. Our house is not properly grounded. Out of the three grounds that required by city code – concealed, ground rod, water main – we only have the “concealed”, which comes from the electrical pole.

As a consequence, none of our outlets is grounded (!). As shown in the picture below, our existing outlets do not have ground wires coming in (left). These outlets have nonetheless been upgraded to a modern grounded type, as shown on the right, but the ground wires are still missing. This is not uncommon in older homes. The problem is that some plug-in electrical devices need this ground connection for their built-in safety features, which will not work if the outlet is not properly grounded.

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4. Reverse polarity outlets

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As shown above, the two different size of the slots on an electrical outlet, and the different-sized blades on a plug, designate their respective polarization. Some of our outlets has the polarity reversed, which means the wires were connected wrong. What is the problem? Allow me to give you an example. A light-bulb socket has exposed threads, and polarized socket threads are attached to the neutral wire. If our lights are plugged in a reversed polarity outlet, the exposed threads would be connected to the “hot” wire, which brings a risk getting a shock when changing light bulbs.

5. None of our receptacles is GFCI, which is required for bathrooms, kitchen and garage.

It would be great if we could correct these issues all at once, but limited by budget and time, we decide to upgrade our panel first. We will be rewiring and ground outlets as we go around and renovate each room.

The old and outdated

Here are our old braker inside the garage, and the old meter box outside:

Inspection report

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The grey-ish box to the left is the Comcast internet cable box, which needs to be grounded as well. See how it was done? It was grounded by a naked wire (no insulation) to the metal pipe that hold all the electrical wires above the meter box. A big code violation.

Taking the dry wall down in the garage

We have decided to take down the drywall on the entire garage back wall before the electrician started his job. Changing the panel and adding more outlets in the garage (Slav’s request) requires some dry wall being taken down. And doing it ourselves will save the electrician’s time and consequently cost us less. In addition, our inspector suggested us to take down the dry wall in the garage to check if there is potential water damage (due to our roof conditions). So it made a lot of sense to take down the entire wall before our electrical work.

Cleaning the garage

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Taking down the wall-mount shelves

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Dry wall was down!

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We were surprised to find insulation behind the exterior walls. After probing around, it seemed like that both exterior wall are insulated with R11 fiberglass (with gaps on top and bottom though). This is a nice surprise because we were planning to insulate the garage so we can work in it during winter time. However, the wall between garage and the house is not insulated. So in summer, when there is a lot of heat trapped in the south-facing garage, the heat will be transferred to the kitchen and add our cooling cost. So we will be insulating this wall soon. However, it is a lot cheaper to insulate one wall then three! So we are definitely happy with the discovery.

Upgrade 1 – a brand new 200 AMP breaker

Next morning, our electrician got to work. All the wires from the breaker went into the attic above the garage, then went into the house through the main attic. Some of them were not even insulated! To extend the wires and adding proper insulation, our electrician worked inside the attic:

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New junction box were installed:

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And new wires were put into place!

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These wired eventually all came out to the new breaker, which located outside of the house by city code.

Next, our electrician moved to the outside to set up the new panel.

Planning phase

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The old setup

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You can see the new panel on the ground! We are happy that this new panel stays outside – it definitely offers a cleaner look being one unit, and we can always use wall space in the garage! The new panel is 200 AMP (our old is 150 AMP), since there is not much price difference between installing a new 150 AMP box and a 200 one.

Notice that the new panel is a lot taller than the old one. Because that it has to be installed at a certain height by code, our electrician had to raise the incoming electrical wire pole (above the meter box) three feet higher. This was a nice surprise for us because the electrical wires coming into the house were hanging pretty low across the yard. When we move a ladder around the yard, we had to be really careful not to hit it. It might be because that our wires are coming from a midpoint between two street poles, which made the starting point a lot lower. So raising the incoming wires from the house’s end by 3 feet is definitely a win in our book.

Our electrician unhooked the wires coming from the street poles, and took the pipe off. It looked like that some squirrel had too much fun with the wires…

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Can you believe that the whole house’s electricity was relying on these two poorly insulated wires? Crazy stuff.

Our electrician put the new panel up, threaded the new pipe through the roof, and connected them together:

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Things started taking shape!

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All the wires from the garage side were brought out of the wall to the new panel. The new wires were bolted to the studs so we can put in new insulation, and the old breaker box became a junction box.

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Upgrade 2 – adding an outdoor outlet

We did not have any outdoor outlet before. When we needed to use electrical tools in the backyard, we had to pop the backdoor open to pass the wire through. Taking advantage of the breaker box being outside, we asked our electrician to put in a new outdoor outlet:

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As you could see, the internet cable box was grounded properly to the breaker box in a small box below. Just look at that whole package – the new panel, new outdoor outlet, and new connection between the cable box and panel – aren’t they beautiful? We are VERY excited.

Upgrade 3  – ground to the ground

One of the biggest problem about our electrical wiring system is the lack of proper ground. Only ground through concealed wire is not enough. By code, we have to have two other types of ground: ground copper pipe and a connection to the main water line, both connecting to the panel with copper wires.

By code, the “ground to the ground” system has to have two interconnected copper pipes deep into the soil, and 6 feet apart. Here is the first one:

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And the copper wire runs away 6 feet to connect with the second one:

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The “water main” system means that there should be a copper wire coming from the breaker box, and connecting to the main water pipe. Like most of the houses, our main water pipe is located in our basement. Our electrician ran the ground wire above the ceiling of the garage, the brought it down all the way into the basement:

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This copper pipe was connected to the main water pipe behind the paneling:

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Upgrade 4 – adding GFCI outlets in the garage

We had three outlets in the garage before, and none of them was GFCI outlets. By code, all the outlets in the kitchen, bathroom, and garage have to be on GFCI circuit. Since Slav plans to add a long work bench in the garage along the back wall, we decided to put in a bunch of outlets right above the height of the work bench. Our electrician put in a few and spaced them evenly, 2 feet apart:

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Look at them. Just breathtaking. I love this kind of stuff.

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We marked on the floor with painter’s tape where the work bench will be. A 9 feet x 3 ft beast! With six outlets above it! Slav’s better work like a horse in here.

Upgrade 5 – wiring for HVAC

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We are getting a HVAC and by code we need to have a dedicated outlet for the condenser unit outside, on the same wall where the unit sits. We are also required to put in an exterior outlet nearby, in case the unit needs to be serviced. Our electrician ran the wires through the attic and brought down to where the condenser will be (between the window well and the corner of the house). He installed the exterior outlet using the wires from an outlet we had in our bedroom.

Here you have it! Five big electrical upgrades in two days! We learned a bunch and are very happy with all the upgrades. It is hard not to step outside to admire our new panel…

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Now our “electrical” to-do list becomes:

1. Replace the old Federal Pacific Stab Lok breakers.
2. Upgrade our electrical panel to code
3. Properly ground our house
4. Adding an outdoor outlet
5. Adding an outdoor HVAC connection
6. Install GFCI outlets in garage
7. Upgrade kitchen and bathroom outlets to GFCIs when renovating
8. Fix the ground and reverse polarity issue on our interior outlets, room by room
9. Redo garage overhead lighting

 

The “New” Old Fence

Hi friends! Last time you got to see our back yard, was back to when we did tons of clean-up work. We cut down dead trees, trimmed dead branches off the living trees, and weeded our way around the property (~9000 sqft of it!). After a few days of elbow grease, we were left with this:

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Before we start planting and plant our dream garden, we have an important issue to address: the fence. Like I showed you in the site plan of the ranch, our backyard is fenced by three types of fencing – wooden fence AND chain link on the left, wooden fence at the back, and chain link fence on the right and the front. As much as we appreciate that the yard came pre-fenced, the different types of fencing makes it look choppy, especially at the back of the yard:

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The picture above shows a corner of the backyard, where the old wooden fencing meets the chain link. We hope to replace the chain link fence soon, but the back fence still consists of two different colors of fencing.

It is apparent that some sections of the wooden fence were more recent than others.

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The darker panels are older. They are still holding up, but just barely. Some boards are warping away from the post:

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And some others are split:

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One hot afternoon, Slav took his hammer to the back fence and reinforced every single board. He also replaced a few of the broken panels with some backup ones we found in the shed. The plan was to paint the lighter panels darker, hopefull to match the darker panels.

In preparation for painting, we decided to power wash the fence. Besides getting the fence clean, we hoped that power wash would lighten the darker panels a bit, so we would not need to paint everything almost black!

It was apparently very difficult to wash aged wood clean in one go. It took Slav 5 hours to wash all the back fence! He first sprayed deck and fence cleaner on the fence, a few panel a time, let it sit for 5 minutes, then pressure washed. After he finished with all the panels, he came back around and washed everything once again.

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From the photo above, you can see how much lighter the darker boards got after their first wash! From right to left, the different colors of sections are: unwashed lighter panels, washed and dried darker panels, just washed darker panels, and unwashed darker panels. What a difference!

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It was satisfying to see black water coming off these old boards! But some of them ended up on Slav so it was not cool at all.

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May I present you – our new old fence!

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Isn’t it sooooo much better? We were in such a shock that the “dark” panels were really just dirty! I am sure that they were older, so years of dirt have made them much darker. But really all of them are the same kind of panels!

This surprisingly good result (always welcome!) changed our plan of painting the fence – with the color being nearly uniform, and the wood surface looking fresh, we will be sealing them with linseed oil to offer some protection.

At the meantime, we are enjoying this:

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You may still be able to tell the difference between older and newer panels, but we could not be happier to go from this:

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to this!

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