Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This (*$%#ing) Old House - A DIY Story

View of house from the lawn
Last week, my wife and I did something that made us feel like adults. We bought a new washing machine and dryer. Normally, installing a gas dryer is straight-forward: just attach the gas line and vent and plug it in. This is only true if your house wasn’t build BEFORE the invention of indoor plumbing, gas heat and electricity. Our house was built in the 1830’s. As no surprise, this simple task of installing the modern appliances turned into a multi-day ordeal.

First question: Is there a gas line near the laundry room?
Answer: No! We had to find a gas line in the house and somehow tap into it. We eventually found one on the other side of the house, but it then took over an hour to find the shut-off valve for it. (It was located outside the house.) Time to go to Home Depot. We installed a T-joint, attached links of black pipe to where the dryer was, installed a new shut-off valve and bubble-tested the line for leaks. All good.

Second question: Is there a vent for the dryer?
Answer: No! For years, the old electric dryer had vented directly into the basement. It coated every beam and cobweb with a fine layer of purple fuzzy lint and sprouted forests of mold that smelled vaguely of fabric softener. The closest egress was a boarded up window. The natural conclusion was to knock out the top window pane (above the outside snow line), cut a hole in the board and install the vent. So, I duct-taped the window pane in order to catch the glass, took a swing with a hammer and…whump! Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. The next tool in my arsenal was a crowbar. I took a hard swing and, Whack! No break, not even a crack. Was this a joke? I hit that window hard, three times before it finally shattered. My ancestors had installed 1/3 inch thick glass in the basement windows. It was practically bullet proof! After that, cutting a hole in the board, adding insulation and installing the vent were straight-forward.

Third question: Are the electrical outlets grounded?
Answer: No! They were three-pronged outlets. However, under the faceplate, the wires had no ground. Great, another trip to Home Depot for grounding wire and a clamp to attach it to a copper water pipe. With the necessary parts in-hand, the next step was to cut the power to the laundry area so I wouldn’t electrocute myself while installing the grounding wire. With 22 rooms in this house, you would think that someone would have labeled the 40+ circuits. They did not. I had to plug a lamp into the outlet and systematically trip each of the circuits in the house until my father-in-law yelled that the light was off. After that, installing the grounding wire was easy.

New dryer works, now for paint
We moved into this historic family home 25 days ago and are nurturing our budding love-hate relationship. The dryer is now humming nicely. We’ve conquered countless other repairs. Before I curse how easy Bob Vila made old home repairs look on TV, I remind myself that the conveniences of modern living (plumbing, electricity, telephones, forced-air furnaces, alarm systems and even cable TV) are modifications to the original structure. Unlike new homes where floor-plans seamlessly incorporate and hide the infrastructure, old houses have been forced to ingest wires, pipes and appliances that were never imagined by the original designers. The results are often convoluted attempts at modernization that have me banging my head against the wall. On the bright side, I’ve found that banging my head against the wall turns on the washing machine.


  1. I am amazed at the skills you're acquiring. You could have a second career as a handyman.

  2. Thanks Linda-Rich is quickly sharpening his handyman, plumber and electrician skills in this place!

  3. ha ha...Tim the tool-man Taylor...

  4. I can't tell you how much I love reading your blog and all of your adventures! Can't wait to finally come visit one day :-)

  5. Thanks Becky! You are always welcome to visit.
    Akshai, Rich is quickly becoming 'Rich the Tool-man' - never without his power drill or tape measure.

  6. Loved your story about your washer and dryer - sounds like it takes one part creativity, two parts patience and three parts tenacity!