Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cleaning Up Our Cleaning Products

As our renovation is nearing its end, I've been thinking a lot about cleaning. Maybe it's the solid sheet of dust covering everything in the house, or the fact that dozens of strange men have been using my bathroom, but I'm ready to do some deep cleaning. Not only do I want to clean everything, I want to clean the way I clean everything.

When it comes to cleaning products, I've been ignoring my environmental roots and just buying random stuff. Not only do the products we use have potential health impacts on us, but as they wash down the drain, they can have serious impacts on the watersheds they end up in. Here in DC, we have a serious problem with water quality, so I think it's time I paid more attention.

The Anacostia River has been seriously polluted for years. While DC local government has taken some bold steps to reduce pollution, by requiring a 5-cent charge for plastic bags, and recently outlawing Styrofoam containers, it remains a heavily polluted waterway. This is not a river you want to swim in. In fact, Marion Barry, one of our esteemed city council members said, "I'm looking forward to the day I can fish in the Anacostia and at one point, I can eat the fish I catch." Gross.

So, to help out, I'm going to start making more of an effort to reduce our environmental impact, with particular focus on water quality. First up- I'm reassessing our household chemicals.

Step 1. Take Stock of What We Have
I started out by rounding up everything we've got, from the kitchen to the bathroom, the utility closet and the laundry closet. My first discovery was that we have a whole lot of stuff, most of which doesn't even get used. Then, because not all chemicals are bad chemicals, I spent some time trying to figure out what chemicals are problematic, and found the the Environmental Working Group's database which rates cleaning products and cosmetics by their environmental impacts. My second big discovery was that a lot of the chemicals I'd bought because they claimed to be environmentally friendly, really weren't.

Our dish washing stuff - average score = D
Abundance of house-cleaning stuff  - average score = D- 
Laundry products - average score = D-
bathroom cleaners - average score = D
massive abundance of personal products, average score = 4.6 / 10 (where 0 is best)

So, the worst offenders in my products included these compounds and chemical families:
  • Fragrance - this is a mysterious collection of unnamed chemicals that can cause asthma, irritate skin, and may cause reproductive issues in fish. They are added to almost everything to make products smell nicer.
  • Parabens - mimic estrogen and disrupt the endocrine and reproductive systems, also kill coral. Added to products as an anti-fungal preservative, appear in most lotions and deodorants.   
  • Formaldehyde Releasers - this group of chemicals slowly release formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen in humans. They are added as an antimicrobial preservative and were present in my shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion.  
  • Phthalates - another endocrine disrupter linked to infertility in men, recently banned from use in children's toys. Added as a plasticizer in products like nail polish and to preserve fragrance.
  • Triclosan - linked to lower thyroid hormones and testosterone, and contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Interferes with the development of tadpoles in ecosystems. Often found in antibacterial soaps because of its antibacterial qualities.

Step 2. Find New Stuff
So, feeling pretty grossed out by my stuff, I set on a quest to find new stuff. The parameters:
  1. It has to work. I still need to look pretty and don't want a house full of grime.
  2. It has to be decently good for the environment, but not perfect. (0-2 for personal product, A-B for house products)
  3. It has to be accessible. I'm not driving across the country for anything or paying twice as much.
After quite a bit more searching on their database and googling around, I settled on a couple new companies:
  • Aveda for hair care products because they don't use parabens, phthalates or formaldehyde-releasers, and there's a salon on my home from work. (Also use recycled plastic for bottles and support renewable energy).
  • Yes to Carrots for face products without fragrance, parabens, phthalates, or formaldehydes, available at Amazon. (Also support feeding children around the world).
  • Honest Company for other skin care, also without all those things and available at Amazon. (Also support renewable energy and recycled packaging). 
  • Even though this is getting a little off the original topic, I found that one of my makeup brands, BareMinerals, is actually great, even though it doesn't claim to be enviro-friendly. So I'm doubling down on them and getting rid of my other random assortment of makeup.
  • For household stuff, I'm going with Whole Foods 365 for all-purpose spray and window cleaner, and 7th Generation for laundry and dish detergent. Both are lines available at our local Whole Foods store.
  • [I'm sure there are other good companies too, these are just the ones that stood out to me.]

Step 3. Out with the Old
For most of the products, I just made a concerted effort to use things up. I was cleaned, exfoliated and moisturized like nobody's business. The house got scrubbed, shined and polished. Some of the nastier chemicals went in the trash. Eventually all the old stuff was gone.

Step 4. In with the New
Then we went shopping. Because I picked products that are easily available, it was just a matter of heading to our local shops and picking up the extra items, or adding them onto another amazon order. (I'm not thrilled to have to buy some of these things online, which requires fuel to ship and boxes to package. I'm rationalizing that as long as I was planning to order something from Amazon already, (and assuming that they minimize fuel use and packing material), then it's ok.

new house products - average score = A-

new personal products -  average score = 1.4/10

Next Steps.
So, I'm excited about my new products, and the notion that I don't have to spend this much effort every time I buy something from now one. I'm thrilled to have fewer products that take up less space than their predecessors.  I'm also a little excited to start putting some more effort into environmentalism. Not to get sanctimonious on you, but I invite you to look up your products. Beware, it's easy to get a little sucked in/carried away. Search household cleansers here and personal products here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bathroom Fixtures

We are just rolling right along on the bathroom- scrambling to make up for lost time and finish in time for inspections. We made a lot of progress over the weekend, and then finished up after work a couple nights this week. In the last post, we had just finished grouting everything.

Step 1. Install Floor Trim
First up, I started working on floor trim because it is so much easier to install before stuff gets in the way. We picked up a couple boards of the standard 5 inch trim and quarterround. I measured a couple times, cut a couple times, and then fit it into place and nail it in. The secret to good-looking trim is caulk. It fills in the gaps and covers all sins. So I liberally applied the caulk, and then painted it.

Step 2. Install Toilet
Meanwhile, mi esposo got to work installing the toilet. He started by drilling holes for the new flange into the cement to attach it securely. Then he cut the water pipe, added a new water valve and hooked up the water line. Next, we set the wax ring on the base of the toilet, and lifted the toilet gently onto the flange and screwed it down.

toilet and trim

Step 3. Install Vanity.
So this is where we get into trouble. We spent hours searching around for a decent looking vanity and sink, we settled on one that then was discontinued. We drove around town looking for options, and eventually just bought the most similar lookalike. We finally took it out of the box and carried it into place, only to realize that it was way too big. We had taped it out on the floor, but in 3D- it was just clearly way too big. So we took it back, and tried to buy a new smaller pedestal sink instead. (Not thrilled with a pedestal, which has no storage, but it was the best option).

Well, the store had three pedestal sinks, but zero pedestal bases, other than the one on display. When none of the store workers would help us, we got a little annoyed and desperate, and my husband, the ne'er-do-well, decided to take the display model. While I was sure we'd be taken away in cuffs, they instead gave us a discount for taking the floor model. We brought it home, and quickly installed it into place. R hooked up a p trap and the new water supply lines, and then put together the faucet and drain.

my devious husband taking apart the floor model
husband vs. the pedestal sink

Step 4. Lights.
The contractors had already put up the housing for a recessed light, so we just grabbed an LED cover bulb that was built for a bathroom. Then, we put up the light over the sink. At the same time, we installed switches for the new vanity light and the fan.

vanity light going up

Step 5. Shower Doors.
This was the step we were really worried about. The shower doors are three pieces of heavy, thick glass that we really didn't want to break. After reading through the really daunting instructions, which included gems like, "don't touch the doors to any tile or they will shatter", we decided not to install them ourselves. Instead, the contractors got to step in and take over this last step.


Next Steps
We are pretty much done. I'm just going to clean it up, touch up the paint, add a towel rack, and then we'll have the big reveal.

Monday, September 22, 2014

End of Summer Garden Update

It seems like forever ago when I posted our spring garden update and moved around a bunch of plants and added a bunch of new ones. Here's the quick progress report. Generally, because the yard was the dump site for construction debris, we didn't spend a lot of time out here, or get to water as regularly as needed. Things aren't as healthy as they could be, but mostly everyone lived.

Along the Sidewalk
I moved the rhododendrons, which weren't doing well in their old spot. They were doing great in the spring and sprouted a bunch of new leaves, but those all fell off when it got hot. Needed more water, but still alive. Hostas and begonias were a win again this year- the hostas came back by themselves and all bloomed. The new red grasses were awesome, but potentially grew a little too large. They are now sort of taking over the sidewalk. Thinking about moving them to create a privacy screen with the new basement back door. At the very end of the sidewalk, the strawberries and blueberries did better and continue to grow. We got a couple berries from each this year- whereas I think we had a single blueberry last year.

spindly rhododendrons

hostas and begonias

awesome red grasses taking over the sidewalk

berry patch getting a little bigger

The new tree is doing great and getting bigger every day. Someone's been eating little holes in the leaves, but the tree seems to be fine anyway. The portulaca did great again (the red flowers), but only bloom in the morning. Other stuff didn't really take off- guessing they needed more water.

portulaca goes crazy in the morning

Along the Back
I never planted anything in the bed to the left of the tree. At some point, the mums I put in last fall that I thought were dead, staged a huge come-back, and are now bushes ready to pop. Don't know how that happened.

mums planted a year ago are ready to bloom again

Along the Fence
So, the kitchen yard did great here. The zucchini is a mess that crawled out of its spot and onto the yard, but it gave us some huge veggies. The tomatoes did great- but overgrew their cages. I need something bigger next year. We had a cucumber for a while, but he died. The pepper plant never produced any peppers, so that sucks. Eggplant did fine too, but also needed a bigger cage. All around, pretty good, but need better supports. Totally hideous, but I guess that's just a given.

massive kitchen garden takes over the yard

The new shrubs are all doing great. Abelias are fine and healthy and bloomed a little. The gardenias also bloomed a bit. The old azaleas that I moved seem stronger and healthier in their new spot.

new abelias blooming subtlely

new gardenias growing tall

old azaleas all bushy and happy

The big losers of the summer were the pots. We started with these great new blue pots full of herbs and carefully located in proper places for good light. Then, they all got moved out of the way of construction and into full sun. Then we couldn't water them, so basically they all died. No herbs for us this year.  Hopefully a solvable problem - we'll just have less construction next year.

failed pots of herbs

Next Steps
All around, this yard is really starting to turn into something nice. This was a much better summer than last year, when everything basically died. Hopefully we're out of the trouble zone for new shrubs and trees, and everything will continue to grow and flower for years to come. Other than adding some fall color  and more spring bulbs once the weather cools a bit, we need some more storage and seating and a place for my hammock-- and then this yard is just about done!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Flower Pot Box Thing

Two thoughts:
  1. Our front porch is horrible and needs some love.
  2. I found a big pile of cedar planks in the basement.
So I decided to build a flower box. I did some searching around online, and found this design by Ana White (a bit of a personal hero of mine). I wanted to make a few modifications, but generally follow her design.

Shopping List:
1 pack of cedar planks (already had)
1 2x2 - 8ft long
1 1x2 - 8 ft long
4 1x3 - 6 ft long

Step 1. Make Four Side Panels
I started out by cutting down all the cedar planks to 23 inches long (so the whole box will be 2 feet tall). To determine the total size of the box, I laid them out and decided that the width would be 7 panels wide and the depth would be 4 panels wide. Then I cut 2 strips of 1x3s for the top and bottom of all four panels, to those measurements. Then I nailed the cedar planks to the strips from the inside, so the nail head wouldn't show. Next, I cut down the 1x2s to the width of the wide panels, and nailed them to the back of the cedar panels roughly half-way up. These will be the supports for the soil.

cutting down the boards

attaching cedar planks to 1x3s on top and bottom

attaching the soil support to the back side of the wider panels
Step 2. Attach the Legs
I cut the 2x2 board in fourths, for 24" tall legs. On the design plan, you're supposed to use a kreg jig to drill pocket holes, but I don't have one. Instead, I just used large screws to attach 2 legs to each of the side panels. It would be nicer for them to be hidden, but I figured it wouldn't be that noticeable. Unlike the plans, I wanted the legs to be flush with the height of the panels.

Step 3. Build the Box
Next up, I attached the front panels to the side panels, forming a box. The trick here was holding everything together while I screwed them in. This always seems to be my problem on carpentry projects, but usually I can find a table or chair to lean things against and make it work.

box coming together

Step 4. Finishing Touches
To make it pretty, I mitered 1x3 boards to frame the top of the box. This makes it look super fancy and professional. Last step, I cut remaining scrap wood to the depth of the box and just laid them on the supports. These will support the soil, but let water escape. Since they will take the brunt of the weight and water damage and may need to be replaced in the future, they are just sitting on the supports and not attached permanently.
with new frame on top and supports inside

moved out front
Step 5. Paint!
I could've left it unfinished, but I thought paint would help protect it from water and make it look a little nicer.

Step 6. Landscape Fabric
So, after it was painted- it just sat around for a while. Our postal worker seemed to think I had built a fancy mailbox and kept leaving things in it, but since that really wasn't my plan, I eventually got some landscape fabric and finished the project. I just placed a piece of landscape fabric loosely inside and stapled it to the sides. This should prevent soil from escaping every time I water it.
lined with landscape fabric
Step 7. Fill and Enjoy!
Last up, I just dumped in some potting soil we had on hand, and filled it with plants. Since it doesn't get any direct light, I picked things that should be ok in the shade and will add some much-needed color to the porch. We've got an evergreen azalea, that will keep its leaves all year and bloom in the spring, plus some pansies that should bloom through the fall and winter. I also stuck some bulbs in, so we should have something nice pop up in the spring.

Total Cost - $20 (not counting plants)
Active Time - 10 hours
Total Time - 1.5 months

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tile, Tile and More Tile

The basement bathroom is rolling right along as we try to make up for lost time. The contractors are basically done and waiting on us to finish up so that we can have inspections. To push this along, we spent all week working on the tile. It meant quite a few late nights, but we really made some great progress.

Step 1. Remove the Toilet
Our first project was to remove the toilet, which we had left in here as long as possible for the dayworkers to use. Because it's an old clay pipe held on with lead, getting it off took some serious muscle and effort. 

Step 2. Level the Floor
Whoever renovated the bathroom before us moved some plumbing across the room by digging out a trench, and then filling it with cement. The problem is, when they refilled the trench, they overfilled it, so the trench was significantly above the level of the rest of the bathroom. We grabbed a bag of self-leveling cement, poured it around strategically to smooth out the biggest problem areas, and let it sit.

Floor leveler goes down

Step 3. Tile!
Once the floor was prepped, we started to dry-fit the tiles. Our contractors left a score-and-snap tile cutter in the basement, so we borrowed it for most of the cuts. We only had 4 tiles that needed more complicated cuts that couldn't be done with the score-and-snap tool. Usually, Lowes will cut a few tiles for you for free, so we drove way out to the nearest Lowes (1.5 hours from us), but the clerk told us the cuts were too difficult. (arg). We bought a tile file, which the clerk said would work, but once we got it home, it became clear that filing a cut into a tile would take about as long as me willing the tile to cut itself (not going to work). So eventually, we broke down and rented the same tile saw we used on the shower, bringing it home for roughly 5 minutes of use, before returning it. Bummer, but effective.

Then, once everything was cut and dry-fit into place, we came back and thinsetted them down. The trick here was that the floor was still really uneven, even after we added the self-leveler. It took much more time than I expected because leveling was so difficult. Hopefully, in the end, the stuff you can see will look fine, and the ugly parts will be hidden under the vanity.

dry fitting them into place

I thinset the last few tiles

Step 4. Grout.
The next night, we started grouting. First, I did the shower, and then came back the next day to do the floor. Grout is easily the easiest of renovation tasks- you smear the grout into the gaps, and then wipe it clean with a big sponge. It takes a couple washes to get everything off, but with glossy tiles like this, it's super quick. 

grouting is basically just scrubbing- over and over again.


Next Steps.
Now we are really in the final stretch on this bathroom. We just need to install the vanity, toilet and shower doors, plus fixtures and lights.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Grout, Appliances and More Doors

More slow progress in the basement this week. Nothing huge, but they're definitely inching towards completion.

In the Basement
They grouted the floor tile, which is nice. The color came out much lighter than on the bag, and there's still quite a bit of haze on the tiles- but mostly it looks great. They installed the appliances in the kitchen and new washer/dryer, which is mostly exciting because it means those things aren't in our way anymore. They also installed the last doors, including the new back door which is massively nicer than the old one.

current status of the kitchen- cabinets in

living room


washer/dryer and new back door

bedroom doors- view from the washer/dryer closet

floor tile with grout and toes
On the First Floor
Nothing huge on the first floor, other than our new dishwasher. Our old one (which is now downstairs) was a drawer unit- meaning that there were two half-sized drawers instead of one full-sized compartment. It didn't work for us at all, because we we're constantly having to run it. Hopefully it'll be a perk for a tenant though. The other exciting development was that they removed the paper and cleaned the floor. It feels so much cleaner now!

state of the dining room

state of the kitchen
close up of the new dishwasher and its amazing 3rd rack
The Worst Thing This Week
So, we replaced the galvanized pipes in the basement for several reasons- including because the metal pipes could corrode and slowly cut off water pressure. They warned us that when the pipes were replaced, gunk could be loosened and sent downstream, where it would cut off water pressure to one of the fixtures. Almost immediately, our water pressure in the kitchen dropped. We lived with it all summer, until "we" decided this week to fix it. Now we have absolutely no water pressure- meaning that there is no water in our kitchen sink. Oddly, the sprayer thing does still sort of work, so we've been using it lamely.

this is why we didn't wash any dishes this week.

The Best Thing This Week
When they removed the thick paper that was all over the floor upstairs, I could've cried. The fact that they also scrubbed and mopped the floors to remove all the dust, is just amazing. I can't describe how annoying it was to have that constant gritty dirty feeling everywhere you stepped.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Basement Bathroom Walls

Where we last left our basement bathroom was after a whirlwind week of prepping the shower and covering it with tile, before we hopped in the car for a lovely week at the beach. Now that we're back and the vacation is over, we've been working on getting the walls finished. (Ideally, the walls would've been done first, but we were still waiting on them to finish up the gas for the stove above, which prevented us from closing in the ceiling).

Step 1. Cut and Install Missing Pieces of Drywall
The contractors got started on drywalling the bathroom, and then stopped abruptly when we told them we were planning to do it. So where they left it, most of the drywall had been cut and fitted, but wasn't actually installed. The ceiling was completely open. We could have rented a thing that helps hold sheetrock up the ceiling, but thought that since it was such a small room, we could do it ourselves. We did- but it might have been worth renting the thing. Sheetrock is surprisingly heavy- so lifting and holding it above your head while trying to figure out why it doesn't fit and how you're going to cut out the light or whatever- well, it's less fun than it might sound. After two nights, we had all the pieces cut and screwed in.

sheetrock going up
Step 2. Mud
Joint compound, aka mud, is an amazing thing. You smear it into all the seams and over the screws, and then easily wash off any mess. Then it dries, while you watch tv.  Then you sand it down, or wipe it with a wet cloth to smooth out the imperfections. Then you add another coat, slowly building up low parts and filling in imperfections. With every step, you can see the walls become more and more perfect. The only problem is fighting the uncontrollable urge to just paint it asap. After a third layer, I finally called it done.

Mudded and ready for paint
Step 3. Prime
Bright white primer goes on the walls and ceiling. We covered the shower to protect the tile from splatters, and then I edged while R rolled. After the first coat, a couple bad spots started showing up, so I quickly re-mudded them, and then we put up a second coat of primer.

 Step 4. Paint
Finally, the walls get a coat of paint to match the rest of the apartment. The ceiling is staying bright white, so we don't need to do anything to it. Both this step and the one before are a little trickier than they should be because the shower tile is up and the trim around the door is installed, so I have to carefully edge around them. Ideally, they wouldn't be up yet- but we're not doing this the easy way.  Even so, it was a quick project to paint such a small room.

Next Steps
Thankfully, the walls and ceiling are now done, so we can get back to tiling. We need to install the floor tile, and then grout everything.