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When good cables go bad

Last Thursday, my daughter and I left to run a few errands. We weren’t gone all that long, but when we got back, we found that the microwaves had lost their time setting, and the fridge’s alarm light was blinking—signs of a power outage. In addition, the internet was offline, which was a bit odd. (My computers and the router/switch are on battery backups, and they didn’t show any signs of having rebooted while we were out.)

I fixed all the clocks, and then power cycled the router and the internet came back. But not for long—a few minutes later, it vanished again. I pulled the WAN cable from the router, waited a few seconds, and connected it again. This time, the net stayed with us for a couple hours. Then it vanished again. I repeated the process, and we had net again…for a while. This continued through the day—sometimes we’d have connectivity for hours, sometimes for minutes—until I got frustrated enough to troubleshoot.

I took my laptop out to the Frontier FIOS box on our garage wall, and connected directly to the FIOS box. I started some large downloads along with a streaming movie, and let them run for an hour or so: No problem. This seemed to point to a cable issue.

Our FIOS box is connected to a long Ethernet cable (red line in the image at right) that runs around the semi-L-shaped house, then under the house, and finally enters the office, where it ends in a wall jack. A shorter cable then goes to the router; I replaced that one first, but we were still getting dropouts. Sadly, that meant the long cable appeared to be damaged.

To test this, I made a long-but-direct cable and ran it from the FIOS box, across the driveway, and through the front door then into my office—definitely not a long term solution, as I had to choose between network connectivity and a locking front door! But using this temporary cable, we didn’t have any outages at all the rest of the day.

Thursday evening, I made a much longer cable, hung it on our Christmas hook lights over the garage, and then around the front of the house (just lying on the ground) to the office—just so we could have both a locking front door and internet connectivity. This line worked fine all day Friday, verifying that the old line was having issues.

Thus, my weekend activity was set…ugh.

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Home hack: Replacing screen window pull-tabs

This weekend, I wanted to wash our windows, including the glass that’s usually behind the screens. To do that, of course, you have to pop the screens. In our house, that’s done by a pair of plastic pull-tabs that are installed below the bead that holds the screen in; they look like this:

Also visible in that screen is the problem: That yellowed plastic is incredibly weak, from exposure to the sun. (Whose idea was it to put non-UV-safe plastic in a window??). As soon as I pull on that tab, it’s going to come right off in my hand. And that’s exactly what happened to that one, and every other sun-facing window in our house.

Amazon sells an assortment of replacement tabs, but the problem is that they must be installed under the bead. That means disassembling the screen, installing the tab, then reseating the bead while getting the screen nice and tight.

I thought there must be an easier way, and after some searching, there is…this video by Felix Wong shows how you can use duct tape to quickly create a much-more-durable pull tab (skip to about 30 seconds for the actual work):

I bought some white duct tape, and in the span of about 15 minutes, I installed new pull tabs on eight windows. Start by folding over about a half-inch of the end of the duct tape, then pull a length out to see how much you need to reach around the frame, and cut to length. Once cut to length, cut in half lengthwise, giving you two narrower tape strips. Apply those to the frame, leaving the doubled-over half-inch where the plastic pull tab used to reside, and you’re done.

You might think you’d rip the tape off while pulling, but because the pressure is parallel to the window, it seems rock solid—I tested with one window about a dozen times, and had no issues at all. So much easier—and potentially longer-lasting—than ordering actual replacement tabs.

The right tool for a (floor) stripping job

I haven’t posted here the last couple days; between work, family, and a little remodeling project, time has just vanished. And as my blog reflects things going on in my world, today’s post is decidely non-tech related: It’s about the remodeling project.

We’re re-doing our kids’ bathroom with a mix of our own work and outsourcing the stuff I know I’d do poorly (tiling the shower, refinishing the tub). On the “own work” side of the ledger was “remove old linoleum floor,” as we have some water damaged sub-floor to replace in the shower area, and we hated the linoleum in general. When I peeled up the linoleum, it left huge sections of glue and paper backing behind:

I had no idea how to remove this gunk, so I bought a few tools at Home Depot: A carbide-tipped scraper that looked like a larger putty knife, a “pull to scrape” device, and a heat gun.

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Kwikset’s smart lock may require another purchase

Just a heads-up for anyone thinking of installing the well-reviewed Kwikset SmartCode 916 Touchscreen Electronic Deadbolt (and probably other similar Kwikset locks): Check your current deadbolt installation to see if you actually need more than what’s included in the box.

In the box is one deadbolt (the “A” in the image at right), which assumes your deadbolt screws into a chiseled cutout in the edge of the door. But if—like me—your deadbolt isn’t screwed into the door but just inserted in place, you need “A2,” a drive-in deadbolt. This part isn’t in the $190 lock kit, nor is it sold (best as I could tell) at Home Depot or Lowes or Ace Hardware.

Check your door before you order your lock, so you can add on a drive-in deadbolt if your door is non-chiseled. Me, because I didn’t know about this, I didn’t check. So I made a 40-mile round trip to Home Depot for a chisel set, then spent an hour chiseling out the door so the included deadbolt would fit.

Mission accomplished, but I think it’s pretty dang cheap of Kwikset to not include both deadbolt styles in a $190 lock kit! (Or perhaps even better, they should design a deadbolt with a removable screw-in plate, then one deadbolt would serve all customers.) So, yea, I had a frustrating Sunday morning!

The magic corner cabinet

As yesterday was a cabinet-related post, I thought I’d stick with a theme and share this one I saw in a friend’s home a while back. It’s the perfect solution for those useless corner cabinets where most people stick a lazy susan, thus giving up on a bunch of storage space.

If we ever move and I have a chance to specify the cabinet hardware, I’m making sure one of these things goes into the corner cabinet!

(Don’t worry, this isn’t turning into a home remodeling blog; tech tips and stories return tomorrow.)

The end of the banging of the cabinet doors

I really hate the bang when a cabinet door closes. Years ago, I’d looked into soft-close mechanisms and found them pricey and a bit fussy to install. But this weekend, we were at Home Depot when I stumbled across these Liberty soft-close dampers. On a lark, I bought the 10-pack to see how well they’d work. The short answer: very well.

Installation is a breeze; they go into the corner of the cabinet with one screw—and the screw hole is angled at 60 degrees, so the pre-drilling goes quickly and at the proper angle. Here’s how one looks installed:

I think it took me about 20 minutes to install all 10, and I probably spent five of that on the first one, making sure I did it right. These are not metal pieces; the body is metallic-painted plastic. However they have decent reviews on Amazon, and were reasoinably priced. There are other brands, too, but I haven’t used any of those. All I know is that I’m thrilled with how they work…

Ah, the blissful sounds of a non-slamming cabinet door!

Out with fluorescent garage lights, in with LEDs

I’ve converted most of our home to LED lighting—costs have plummeted in recent years, and when you combine LED lights’ long lives with low energy costs, the payback period is incredibly short. Newer LEDs are also warmer in tone—we found some “soft light” 60W equivalent bulbs that are nicely warm (and warmer when dimmed). Through all of this, though, I had one area of the house I’d ignored: The garage.

Our garage has six (five overhead, one over a workbench) 48″ long fluorescent hanging fixtures. I hate fluorescent bulbs, but the cost to replace them with LED-equivalent fixtures was high—about $300 to do all six. But the other day at Costco, I noticed they had two-pack FEIT 4′ LED replacement bulbs—like these at Amazon—for only $18 (versus $28 at Amazon as I write this).

A “normal” 48″ fluorescent tube light, as in this Sylania four-pack is around $6 or $7 per light. So while the LED bulbs are more expensive, a $3 difference isn’t much at all given the lower engery usage and long life. (And the fluorescents in my garage go out quite often, even compared to indoor incandescents.) So I bought one box, as a test to use over the workbench.

Within a couple minutes of installing the LED tubes, I was headed back to Costco to buy five more boxes—the difference is that notable. Instant on, brighter and more-even light distribution, no flicker, and they should last nearly forever.

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It’s snowing…in slow motion!

It’s just started snowing here in central Oregon, so I shot a bit of slow motion snowfall. The end result is very oddly mesmerizing (open the video in a new window to see it at full size):

The snow looks like some fake Hollywood effect when seen in slow motion. But hey, it’s falling, it’s sticking, and the kids may get a white Christmas after all!

I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday…I’m outta here to go play in the snow!

Fake fire … enhanced

To make our winter-air-blocked non-functional fireplace more visually engaging, I printed a huge fireplace image across multiple pages, and taped them to the fireplace blocker. The end result was usable, but definitely not professional:

So I set out to find a shop to print a 36″x48″ poster of the huge image. And because this was clearly an optional project, I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible. After much web searching, I found Poster Print Factory. Their online poster creation tool was easy to use, and the cost ($35 including shipping) was the lowest I found by at least $10.

It took about a week, but the poster arrived and the quality is fine. It’s printed on relatively thick stock, and the image itself looked stunning. So now, our artificial fire has been enhanced by a high quality poster overlay:

So much nicer to look at than the silvery surface of a piece of foam insulation! Anyway, if you’re looking for some inexpensive poster-sized prints, I was happy with what I got from Poster Print Factory.

Cutting the land line (sort of)

Being old school—and just old in general—our family has always had a land line (i.e. Plain Old Telephone Service or POTS). We’ve also had the same POTS phone number for well over a decade, so it’s the number that everyone uses to call us at home. Add in the fact that (at least until very recently) AT&T cell service at our home was marginal to poor, and there really wasn’t much desire to cut our land line for all-cellular.

Until I looked at our bill, that is, and discovered that our POTS line was costing us over $30 a month. Even at that amount, we paid extra for caller ID, and still had to pay for long distance calls. So once AT&T upgraded the cell towers near our home, we started using our cell phones for all long distance calls. But still, our POTS number was well known to friends and family, so we didn’t want to just kiss it goodbye. But that $30+ a month was basically a complete waste of money, so I started looking for other solutions.

Enter VOIP, or Voice Over IP. This technology has been around a long time, but I never really felt ready to make the move. Then I started looking into it, and found that I could save about 90% of the monthly cost of my POTS line, keep my phone number, and gain a number of useful features. That made the “go” decision quite easy to make; read on if you’re curious about replacing a land line with a VOIP service.

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