Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mapping the electrical fantastic

Over the past few years, we’ve created a basic electrical map of the house. So I know which circuit controls each light, each outlet, each switch. I can see ahead of time what will happen if I turn off a particular circuit breaker. There’s a great-looking circuit mapper tool for doing this quickly, but we did it the slow way: two people on phones, one plugs in an outlet tester and the other flips breakers until the outlet loses power. Write down the result, move on to the next outlet. Eventually I sketched each floor of the house in InDesign, put in all the lights, outlets, and switches in their approximate locations, and marked their circuit numbers on the map. The map could be improved: I could note the electrical loads of each outlet, the date each outlet was last (re)installed, who last did the connections, and which outlets are tamper-resistant. But as is, it’s been very helpful in the last round of electrical improvements to know which circuit breakers to turn off, which circuits could be extended, and where a short-circuit might be.

In the last 6 weeks we’ve added 2 ceiling fans and switches, removed two wall sconces, and added outdoor outlets in two locations, a front porch outlet, basement outlets in two locations, and a lot of outlets in two upstairs bedrooms. We’ve upgraded numerous other outlets in the process to tamper-resistant or GFI, upgraded a couple more circuit breakers to arc-fault, replaced our outdoor lights, and done some other electrical clean-up. Oh, and we have a doorbell outside our house if you want to come visit!

What the map doesn’t show, though, is the circuits themselves: the paths of the wires to get from the main panel to their various receptacles and fixtures. And that’s become an issue as we try to figure out how to replace a few short runs of wire partially buried in the walls. The tone generator and wire tracer aren’t working to tell me where the wires go once they disappear behind plaster and lath. I suddenly find myself a fan of surface-run wiring.

So I spent an hour yesterday following circuit #1 around our basement, and another hour trying to figure out how to figure it out. Seven junction boxes, most splitting the circuit into two or three directions, and eventually seven runs of wire heading up to the first or second floor. Four of the runs are obvious: they go up directly below a first floor outlet on that circuit. But three of the runs are completely mysterious: they head up nowhere near a corresponding destination. And even worse, there are only two items on circuit #1 which are unaccounted for: a key dining room outlet, and a wall sconce and outlet on the second floor which are clearly fed by the same run. At least one run heading upstairs cannot possibly be going anywhere good. Two of the mystery runs come from a junction box helpfully mounted directly over our furnace, so they cannot be disconnected without removing the furnace.

I have a start: I’ve laid out the basement spaghetti of circuit #1 on our map. (This will be a good exercise for me to learn how InDesign handles layers.) Of course, this fall was supposed to be about finishing house projects, not starting them, so a start doesn’t really feel like progress.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Let there be light

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 changed the rules for light kits in ceiling fans. Prior to that, most ceiling fans with light kits took regular-base light bulbs. In 2007, manufacturers stopped making ceiling fans that took regular-base light bulbs. Many switched to candelabra bases, and others switched to CFLs. We have halogen bulbs with regular bases that we really like, though, so when we put in a 4-socket ceiling fan in 2008 that came with candelabra bases, I rewired the light kit and attached regular sockets.

I forgot about this silliness until we installed a new ceiling fan in the guest room last week. The last time I bought the identical fan for my office, it came with a single 75-watt-max regular-base socket. When I opened the new one, to my surprise it came with a tiny 75-watt halogen bulb. Very cute, good light output, and completely incompatible with using any new efficient light bulbs. Or even older more efficient light bulbs. In my office ceiling fan, I use a 70-watt regular-base halogen that puts out 1600 lumens. The tiny 75-watt halogen puts out 1300 lumens. The new efficiency rules are forcing me to use a less efficient light. And forget about ever putting in a medium-base CFL or LED, since the socket is wrong. This is clearly the wrong outcome of the new rules.

The ceiling fan manufacturer came through for me when I called, and sent me a couple of replacement regular-base light kits for when I want to switch to a more efficient bulb. But I can’t publicly thank them for that, because I agreed with their wonderful customer service rep that we never had that conversation and that they wouldn’t ship me anything. The correct light kits arrived yesterday, in time for installing the last ceiling fan on Thursday. Or would have arrived yesterday, if they had shipped me anything. Which they didn’t. At no charge.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Step 3: Profit!

The USPS wants to close the West Medford Post Office, because it currently turns a profit of only $300,000 a year and is less than 2 miles from the Medford Square Post Office. They are remarkably bad at explaining their reasoning, so everyone wonders why the USPS would want to give up $300,000 a year by closing a profitable branch. The USPS reasoning is presumably that if they close West Medford then the income will all shift to Medford Square when people bring their mail there, and the costs at West Medford will mostly be eliminated, so their total profit between the two branches would be higher.

On the cost side, the USPS is not exactly being honest. The West Medford labor costs are by far their highest expense. Those costs cannot be eliminated, since the workers cannot be laid off. The USPS will save maybe $50,000 a year on rent, utilities, cleaning, maintenance, and equipment.

On the income side, the USPS is being bizarrely optimistic. Some mail volume will go to the nearest branch, particularly for the sorts of mail which have no competition: postage-paid envelopes, first class mail, international mail. But Express Mail and domestic package shipping is a huge portion of their income at local branches, and that shipping has competition from UPS and FedEx. The USPS is betting that most people and businesses will not shift that sort of shipping over to UPS and FedEx just because of having to bring packages to Medford Square instead of West Medford. After all, it’s only an added 5-10 minutes of travel time, an added 5-10 minutes spent waiting in line, and the extra inconvenience of more difficult and unpredictable parking, parking further away from the door, and carrying packages up an extra flight of steps (or an extremely long ramp). For an infrequent shipper, that’s not a big enough obstacle to change their mail volume significantly. For a frequent shipper, that adds up quickly into an incentive to explore alternatives. And frequent shippers are the customers that the USPS should be most concerned about attracting and keeping.

My particular business situation is not unique among mail order businesses. We spend $10,000 a year on shipping. $1000 of that goes to FedEx Ground, and $9000 goes to the USPS. Of the USPS volume, most is picked up at our location (and is therefore counted as Medford Square income, since Medford Square handles those), some is dropped off at Medford Square, and some is dropped off at West Medford. We are probably only counted as $500 of income for West Medford, since that’s all the mail volume we drop off there.

But when we decide on which sorts of packages we are going to ship through FedEx Ground vs. through the USPS, we don’t know which packages we’re going to have picked up and which we’re going to drop off. What we do know is that the West Medford option, 5% of our annual shipping volume, accounts for the majority of our most important packages, and is by far the fastest and least stressful drop-off location for urgent packages. So we set the USPS as a default for 90% of our shipping because of that 5% that goes to West Medford. If the USPS closes West Medford, we will have to reconsider our shipping plan, and we could easily shift at least 40% of our shipping over to FedEx Ground, rather than shifting that West Medford 5% over to Medford Square. If we do that, the USPS will see $7 of lost Medford Square income for each $1 of lost West Medford income on our mail volume.

The problem for the USPS in modeling these outcomes is that they offer frequent shippers like us no way to express the importance of particular branch locations to our shipping decisions. I’ve asked if there is any way to have the USPS appropriately apportion the income they receive from us between West Medford and Medford Square, and there isn’t. That would require cooperation from Medford Square, and Medford Square doesn’t want to do anything that would hurt their apparent bottom line by attributing any income to West Medford. The USPS can’t figure out how to compete with FedEx and UPS, but they have figured out how to compete destructively with themselves.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy your life

I’ve always felt that speaking up publicly when we have something to say is a moral obligation. If we know ways that our community or our society can be improved, we should advocate for those changes. Advocacy can take a lot of forms: talking with friends, writing letters to politicians or to newspapers, distributing literature, holding signs, going on marches, organizing strikes, working on election campaigns, etc. But it was not always clear to me why peaceful public demonstrations would have any positive effect on the decisions made by those in power. It may satisfy that moral obligation to speak up, but is it also a practical tool when it is unlikely to change a person’s position on an issue?

The answer lies in the fact that our position on an issue does not dictate our impact. In my experience, our impact is largely determined by our expressed level of passion and by our connections to others, and a peaceful public demonstration can affect both of those. People who participate in or watch or discuss Occupy Wall Street may discover that they are not alone, may connect to a like-minded community, may feel empowered to participate in ways they had not before, may feel emboldened to speak up in ways they had not before. Hearing others sing gives us the freedom to raise our own voice in song. It is too easy to despair over the discordant national chorus that the media loves to promote, and forget to sing ourselves. Occupy Wall Street will succeed in having a positive impact if it changes the balance of who decides to speak out, if it provides inspiration and courage to the disempowered and disenfranchised. Our nation is not a sprint, and our needs are neither short-term nor small. May the occupiers of 150 public spaces give us the strength to more fully occupy our own lives so we all do more than just take up space.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A filter by any other name would taste too sweet

Lead paint chips aren’t really the problem with lead paint. The problem is lead dust, which is much more difficult to deal with. And using a regular vacuum on lead paint chips can create a much worse lead dust problem.

An important part of the solution is to use a proper HEPA vacuum (a vacuum with an actual HEPA filter and a sealed system so that all exhaust air is forced to pass through the HEPA filter). And those are expensive: the cheapest HEPA shop-vac that I could find is about $500. So contractors and painters mostly refuse to buy them, and complain bitterly (and somewhat falsely) that HEPA vacuums are at least $1000. The reality is that contractors and painters hate the new lead rules and wouldn’t use a HEPA vacuum if it were free.

Or would they?

I’d like to see Massachusetts simply give a HEPA vacuum to every single licensed contractor and painter in the state. No more excuses about the cost of the vacuum, no more reasons to spread lead dust. Just a proactive approach that makes it clear we are serious about reducing this particular environmental hazard.

And we all benefit, whether the HEPA vacuum is being used in our own home, or on our neighbor’s property, or in our workplace or school, or in the restaurants and stores we go into, or in friends’ homes that we visit. This isn’t a gift to contractors and painters. It’s the smart move for all of us.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Four hours left

I'm supposed to use this time before Yom Kippur to try to make things right with other people, so I can focus during Yom Kippur on trying to make things right with God. I feel utterly lost on how to do that this year, because the people with whom things are distinctly not right seem so intractably alien. Perhaps the work is supposed to be hard, but this year it seems absolutely hopeless.

I don't think I'm at odds with anyone who reads this blog, but if I am, I apologize. I don't want that.

I read an interesting theory today that the best way to convert an enemy into an ally is to somehow persuade them to do you a favor. Their cognitive dissonance (I don't like this person, but I helped this person) will likely be resolved by them convincing themselves that they actually do like you. It seems worth a try as a last resort in some cases, since I've tried everything else. It runs completely counter to my instincts, which are to try to be of service to others rather than ask others for help.

So a request to my readers: please help me out by leaving a comment here. Tell me something good you hope will happen in your life over the coming year, because I want to enter this coming year full of hope for my life and for yours.