Wago Lever Nuts

Wire nuts are terrible. They are unreliable, inelegant, and difficult to use correctly.

Last year I discovered Wago Lever Nuts and I will never go back. These wire connectors are amazing. They can be used for all of your home and industrial wiring in lieu of wire nuts, and are also useful for many other hobby wiring projects. They are of course properly certified for in-wall AC wiring.

You can mix and match different gauges of wire from 28 AWG up to 12AWG, and you can individually lock and unlock each wire into the nut by closing or opening a lever. You can also mix-and-match solid copper and stranded copper wire in the same nut. They hold up extremely well under vibration, so they would be good for automotive use as well. No other wire connector is this versatile.

Best of all, unlike so many modular European industrial electrical items, this one does not break the bank. They are competitively priced to other connector solutions and the 2 and 3 circuit nuts are around $0.25 each in small volumes, and around $0.50 for the 5 circuit version.

One of the only problems is that they are not readily available at big-box hardware stores. Plan ahead and get a bunch now – you will be glad to have them when you need them.

1-2-3

-- Dev Kumar  

Wago 222-412 Lever Nuts
2 Conductor Compact Connectors
$12 / 25 PK

Available from Amazon



Intermatic EI400 In-Wall Timer Switch

When we would leave the house before dark and return after, it was always a game of “not it” to determine who got stuck opening the front door in the dark. Worse yet was vacation time. We set up lights on timers throughout the house, only to choose whether the porch light was left on or off the whole time.

We haven’t switched the outside light for three+ years since installing this wonderful gadget. I replaced the standard flip switch with the in-wall timer switch. It’s set to keep track of dusk and dawn for our time zone and switch the light accordingly. We occasionally have to true up the time, but it’s maintenance free for the most part.

It’s a relief to know that anytime we pull up, the front light will be on. And we never have to start the guessing game of “did you leave the light on”.

-- Steve Simpson  

Intermatic El400 In-Wall Timer
$35

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Intermatic



Murphy Bed

We moved to a much smaller house recently in an effort to downsize. We found, however, that no matter how carefully we shopped we were not going to find a house in our price range with all the rooms we needed. Then an idea struck me. What about a Murphy Bed? My memories of them consist of people being trapped in them in TV comedies. You know, the ditzy one, sits on the end of the bed and up it goes into the wall taking him or her with it.

But, oh my, how they have changed. Murphy Beds are still in use, more than ever, and they have some beautiful and ingenious models. What was more important to us, however, was that by using a Murphy bed we got another room. The room that will be my library will, now, also be the guest room. By having a bed that folds inconspicuously into the wall and is then fronted with bookcases our guest room serves as 2 rooms. What a bonus.

The fronts of these beds come in any configuration and serve as many purposes as you can imagine. They start at about $2000 and can go quite high from there depending on what you want. But when you consider you are adding a room to your house for that price it is a true bargain.

We purchased our Murphy Bed, called the Library, from more SPACE place in Salem, NH and I cannot say enough about the quality of the product and the service this company provided. The cost of the bed includes delivery and installation and they did this quickly and professionally. I would suggest you start your search here to get an idea of what a good bed costs and branch out from there. My bet is you’ll be back here. We found that they were superior to their competitors in price, variety, durability and service. What else is there.

The best thing of all is that the bed is really comfortable.

-- George Christin  

Jefferson Library Bed
$2,000

Available from more SPACE place

Manufactured by Murphy Bed



E-Z Foldz Step Stool

I have two of these nifty folding stools, one for my garden shed, and one that (mostly) lives in the kitchen. They’ve been kicking around my house for 2-3 years now, and I’m incredibly impressed with their sturdiness. The cool thing about these step stools is that they fold to a flat package only 2-1/4 inches thick. It will support up to 300 pounds, and you can tuck it between the fridge and the wall or under the sink or in a broom closet.  Folding them involves pushing in the hinged short ends and pushing the wider sides together. It’s a fantastic option for small spaces, where storage is at a premium.

The step stool in the kitchen lives under the sink, where it takes up remarkably little room.  They’re sturdy enough to kick around like a soccer ball, which I do pretty regularly. If it gets dirty, you can take it outside and hose it down. The plastic is soft enough to be non-marring to floors, and the top surface is roughened to prevent slips. It has a clever carrying handle in the top which works really well when folded and nearly as well when opened up.  It comes in 2 heights, 9″ and 12″. I have the 12″ high stool, and the top is nice and roomy,  It costs between $10-$20, depending on where you find it. I picked ours up at a local hardware store. A quick web check shows that this is a pretty widely available item.

-- Amy Thomson  

[Note: We first reviewed the E-Z Foldz Step Stool back in 2008.--OH]

E-Z Foldz Step Stool
$11

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by B&R Industries



Nest Learning Thermostat

Last year I replaced my old-looking but perfectly functional programmable thermostat with a better looking, WiFi-equipped model. The remote aspect of it was good. We could set “away” temps, and restore normal temps on our way back home. And the programmable part was always good – cool at night, not working so hard when we’re at work, etc.

But even though the thing was from a “major name”, it was a true PITA. While it worked most of the time, any time we wanted to tweak things, ugh. It was miserable. Then Nest came out with their Learning Thermostat.

I  recently put one in and it’s well beyond what I was hoping the other might be. Superbly easy installation and activation, beautiful to look at, and as user-friendly as anything can be. It’s still in learning mode which basically means it is figuring out our daily schedules. But so far they’ve thought of everything, and this has given me complete confidence in its long term purpose.

Nest also provides apps that allow you to control your thermostat from your iOS or Android phone or tablet. You can also track energy usage history, etc. At $249 it’s a lot more than other thermostats, and so maybe not suited for everyone’s budget. But I’ll say it’s more than suitable for any home. It’s a beautifully designed and exceptionally functional thermostat that continues to do its job very well.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Nest Learning Thermostat
$179

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Nest



Mommy’s Helper Electrical Outlet Covers

I began installing these outlet covers over a year ago when my twins started crawling around the house. They were fascinated by standard outlet button covers, and learned how to pry them out. These sliding outlet covers are much simpler to operate (simply place plug tines in slots and slide to the left to engage actual outlet slots), and require a level of coordination that the boys cannot defeat even at 1.5 years.

The covers also solved an existing problem I had with loose outlets. You know the sort where you plug in your vacuum and with the slightest tug on the cord it pops out of the outlet. These sliding covers act as an anchor and hold the plug in tightly.

My house was built in 1991 and has what appear to be completely average outlet plates, and every one has accepted one of these covers perfectly. They screw in neatly, have a foam gasket for insulation, and the plastic is sturdy enough not to bow at all when firmly tightened with the screw. There are several brands of similar slide-type covers, but I can’t vouch for their fitting capability.

-- Sarah Brown  

Mommys Helper Safe-Plate Electrical Outlet Covers
$2.75

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Mommy's Helper



Tapi Drinking Fountain

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I bought this gadget about a month ago. I have it attached to the tap in my bathroom, and I love it! It allows me to turn the bathroom tap into a cool, bubbly drinking fountain with the flick of a finger. To fit it on the tap I had to take the aerator off the end of the faucet, but I find I like the water better (both for washing and drinking) when it hasn’t passed through the aerator.
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I have arthritis and my hands are weak, so instead of pinching the tapi to create the fountain I just fold the end of it over, and this works very well. I think it would be easy for a child to operate. It comes in a variety of colors, and only costs around $6.

-- Lesley Robinson  

Tapi Drinking Fountain
$7

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by DreamFarm



Safeglides Tap-In Felt Furniture Pads

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When you get sick and tired of reapplying those adhesive felt furniture feet to all your furniture every time they come off (go ahead, look under something; a lot of them are coming off or missing aren’t they?), you can get these improved ones that I found a few years ago.

The round metal rivet hammers easily into the end of the leg with a tack hammer, and the metal part doesn’t break like the kind with the single skinny nail in the center. (And the adhesive kind, as you no doubt have noticed, do not stay properly attached for very long at all.) I have never had one of these fail yet.

This vendor has them for a good price; they have a $25 minimum, which means you have to order about 80. However, you can also get them at Amazon.

-- Charles Kiblinger  

Safeglides Tap-In Felt Furniture Pad
$8 for pack of 16

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Highland Woodworking

Sample Excerpts:

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SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap

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This is a battery operated cat door that unlocks (going inside) by reading the cat’s microchip. Our cat was chipped at our shelter for around $10, but commercial vets are also able to do it for a bit more. No need to worry about lost collar keys, or magnets. Keeps out unprogrammed animals. The door also has the standard four-setting mechanical overide locking feature of: in-out, in only, out only, locked. If your cat is not chipped, you can also use an RFID collar key (not included).

We previously had a magnetically keyed cat door, but you then have the choice of using a safety collar and losing the (not cheap) key every now and then, or using a non-safety collar and risking the cat strangling itself.

Raccoons eventually defeated our magnetically keyed door. They haven’t defeated this one (yet), although the mechanical parts of the latching action are similar.

-- Bruce Bowen  

SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap
$133

Available from Amazon



Homesteading Alone

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The uber American dream is to build your own comfy place on the edge of wilderness with your own hands. The attraction of this self-reliance is the chance to rewind civilization personally, to start over and do it your way. To own your own progress. Thoreau wrote the prime document of lifestyle self-reliance in his shed at Walden pond, an hour’s walk away from his home. Walden is still worth reading as a how-to and why-to book. Yet as the world’s wilderness shrinks, each generation seeks the wild further afield in order to retell the story of sprouting kernel of humanity in a small homestead.

There’s a lot to be learned from the few diehards who have homesteaded far off the grid in modern times, and who have written honestly about the practicalities of this adventure. I found three recent accounts to be most helpful. Listening to them you get to see how much of a subsidy civilization gives us, and how challenging it is to recreate it in even a small measure.

In An Island To Oneself, Tom Neale took over an uninhabited island in the Pacific in the 1950s and constructed a beach shack for his solitary home. He’s a sort of Robinson Crusoe, or Cast Away, for real. He voluntarily lived alone, separated from the nearest human by hundreds of miles of open sea. He had to be his own contractor, gardener, shipbuilder, fisherman, and doctor. The amount of household stuff he recreated from scratch is amazing. Neale had a lot of leisure as a full-time beach bum, but it’s a surprise how constantly he worked, and how thoroughly he had to prepare for everything. His account supplies great details about the reality of living on a deserted island. In a place like his the littlest mistakes could be fatal. His journal is a page turner with one small upset after another. It was no day at the beach.

In a parallel world up in the cold wilds of Alaska, Dick Proenneke flew to a remote lake and built himself a log cabin to live year-round alone among the snow, bears, and blueberries. This achievement is not uncommon for Alaska. What makes his account in One Man’s Wilderness special and useful is that Proenneke thoroughly documented his work in 16mm film movies, photos, and diaries. From his meticulously vivid accounts you get a clear and exact recipe for what it takes to chop trees with an axe, peel them by hand, and erect an airtight cabin. And then to heat it all winter in minus 30 degrees. Proenneke complicated his chores by filming and photographing himself the whole time while doing them, no easy feat with bulky, balky film movie cameras of the 1970s. While his “video” clips are fascinating, I found his journal far more helpful, more impressive, and more inspirational. One Man’s Wilderness is a great account of how to build a tidy cabin from logs you cut and hew, and keep warm and content in the northern wilderness.

Somewhat related to the Alaska romance is the story of Sylvan Hart, who called himself the last mountain man. In the 1960s and 70s Hart homesteaded in a remote part of Idaho. He lived near a road, and had neighbors and mail delivery, but he spent a lot of time making his own tools, and practicing what are now called primitive survival skills. He mined copper, made metal, forged iron, made his own guns, and hunted bear for food and clothing. In other words he was trying to bootstrap civilization as much as he could. His story, written by a sympathetic journalist in the book The Last Mountain Man, gives a somewhat romantic picture of Hart’s life, but even this dramatic view will quell most fantasies with how bootstrapping it is.

Yes, you can build a home in the wilderness using only hand tools, but as all each of these stories make clear, self reliance is relative. Thoreau went to town to do his laundry, Neale brought a boatload of supplies with him, and Proenneke in Alaska had the bulk of his food flown in every month. The larger lesson from these books, and the reason they are cool tools, is that every small step we take toward self reliance is rewarded with heaps of wholeness, self-knowledge, and personal clarity. These books will give you confidence and tips on taking your own small steps toward doing things yourself.

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An Island to Oneself
Tom Neale
1966 (1990), 255 pages
$25
Available from Amazon

On August 4, 1953 — ten months after I had landed — I welcomed my first visitors.

It was unexpected because I had long since stopped wondering whether one day I would wake up to discover a strange yacht or schooner anchored in the lagoon. I had become so engrossed with my life on Suvarov that I rarely gave a thought to the outside world.

They were very happy days. I was never lonely, though now and again I would walk along the reef wishing somebody could be with me — not because I wanted company but just because all this beauty seemed too perfect to keep to myself.

*
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Fishing in the shallows with a single pronged spear.

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The evening’s haul. I was never short of fish.

*
Of course, I had heard of this great lagoon, with its coral reef stretching nearly fifty miles in circumference, but I had never been there, for it was off the trade routes, and shipping rarely passed that way.

Because its reef is submerged at high tide — leaving only a line of writhing white foam to warn the navigator of its perils — Suvarov, however, is clearly marked on all maps. Yet Suvarov is not the name of an island, but of an atoll, and the small islets inside the lagoon each have their own names. The islets vary in size from Anchorage, the largest, which is half a mile long, to One Tree Island, the smallest, which is merely a mushroom of coral. The atoll lies in the centre of the Pacific, five hundred and thirteen miles north of Rarotonga, and the nearest inhabited island is Manihiki, two hundred miles distant.

*
Morning and evening from that moment on I scattered the split uto nuts on the square of ground where the run was to be built, and then banged lustily on the old iron crowbar made from the transmission shaft of a Model T Ford I had acquired in a Raro junkyard. The result was really extraordinary. Up till now I had spent weeks unsuccessfully trying to cajole the fowls into a regular feeding tie. Now, within a week, they were recognizing the familiar sound of the beaten crowbar, and cam running as fast as they could, determined not to miss a good feed. They brought all sorts of surprises with them too — in the shape of at least two clutches of chicks which I had no idea even existed. Although this achievement did not immediately solve my egg-collecting problems, at least I was able to keep track of the island’s hen population, and now I started building the chicken run in earnest.

*
I knew the portents only too well (that trite old phrase about the calm before the storm) and strode back to the shack. There was no immediate hurry — but equally there was no doubt that serious trouble was on the way. Before doing anything else, I checked my survival cache of tools, making sure my extra matches in their sealed tin were dry, and then took the box over to the “burial hole” in the outhouse. Next I lit a good fire on my brick hearth, and while it was burning, went out with my spear for a concentrated hour of fishing. It seemed provident to lay in some emergency rations, for there was no telling with a big storm; it could last a few hours or a few days.

I had plenty of cooked uto, but I foraged around for a couple of dozen more, which I cooked, and then I laid out double rations for the fowls. Next — as the first puffs of wind ruffled the palms — I inspected the garden for any ripe fruit which would be mercilessly blown off the plants when the inevitable storm broke.

I had sufficient uto to withstand a siege of several days — and in a way it was rather like preparing for a siege against an implacable foe. In the outhouse I had a plentiful supply of wood, and in the kai room a good stock of arrowroot, plenty of fresh vegetables, including yams, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach and onions. A dozen drinking nuts, a couple of ripe breadfruit and a stem of bananas completed my emergency rations.

By mid-afternoon gigantic seas were visible breaking all along the reef to the north, and before sunset, when the storm was beginning to reach its height, seas more huge than I had ever seen before began breaking right across the half-mile width of the entrance to the passage.
*
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One Man’s Wilderness
Sam Keith, from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke
1999 (2010), 223 pages
$12

Available from Amazon

Video embed:

Part 1
Part 2

Sample excerpts:

Learn to use an axe and respect it and you can’t help but love it. Abuse one and it will wear your hands raw and open your foot like an overcooked sausage. Each blade was nursed to a perfect edge, and the keenness of its bright arc made my strokes more accurate and more deliberate. No sloppy moves with that deadly beauty! Before I started on a tree I carefully cleared obstructions that might tangle in the backswing. It was fun planning where each should fall, and notching it for direction. Snuck! Snuck! The ax made a solid sound as it bit deeply into the white wood.

*
Anyone living alone has to get things down to a system — know where things are and what the next move is going to be. Chores are easier if forethought is given to them and they are looked upon as little pleasures to perform instead of inconveniences that steal time and try the patience.

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I included in the first trip a .30-06 converted Army Springfield, a box of cartridges, a .357 magnum pistol with cartridge belt and holster, the backboard, the camera gear (8mm movie and 35mm reflex), cartons of film, the foodstuffs (oatmeal, powdered milk, flour, salt, pepper, sugar, honey, rice, onions, baking soda, dehydrated potatoes, dried fruit, a few tins of butter, half a slab of bacon), and a jar of Mary Alsworth’s ageless sourdough starter.

The second pile consisted of binoculars, spotting scope, tripod, a double-bitted axe, fishing gear, a sleeping bag, packages of seeds, A Field Guide to Western Birds, my ten-inch pack, and the clothing. More bulk than weight.

The third pile held the hand tools such as wood augers, files, chisels, drawknife, saws, saw set, honing stone, vise grips, screwdrivers, adze, plumb bob and line, string level, square, chalk, chalk line, and carpenter pencils; a galvanized pail containing such things as masking tape, nails, sheet metal screws, haywire, clothesline, needles and thread, wooden matches, a magnifying glass, and various repair items; a bag of plaster of Paris; and some oakum.

*
It is always interesting to see what a fish has been eating. Several times I have found mice in the stomachs of lake trout and arctic char. Now how does a mouse get himself into a jackpot like that? Does he fall by accident, or does he venture for a swim? tough to be a mouse in this country.

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It is important to put the notch on the underside of a log and fit it down over the top of the one beneath. If you notch the topside, raid will run into it instead of dripping past in a shingle effect. Water settling into the notches can cause problems.

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Had my first building inspector at the job. A gray jay, affectionately known as camp robber, came in his drab uniform of gray and white and black to look things over from his perch on a branch end. The way he kept tilting his head and making those mewing sounds, I’d say he was being downright critical.

*
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1) These simple hand tools will challenge anyone’s self-reliance. 2) Notice how the notches fit snugly over the tops of the logs below them, as if fused.

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1) Dick readies the roof poles for installation. 2) With the poles in place, the slots between the pole ends under the eaves need to be filled in. These fillers should be called “squirrel frustraters.”

*
Wood to saw and split everyday. Got to keep up my payments at the Firewood Trust if I want to stay warm this winter. No real problem at all. Some folks had led me to believe it would be an everlasting job — cut wood all day to keep warm all night.
*
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The Last of the Mountain Men
Harold Peterson
1969, 160 pages
$12
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

As a young man, dismayed by the destruction of the final frontiers, Sylvan Hart recanted civilization and marched off into this Idaho fastness armed with a few staples, an ax, a rifle, and a master’s degree in engineering. There, in the last wilderness, where one winter’s snow might fall into another’s before a visitor came, he became the last of the Mountain Men. Son to be known as Buckskin Bill, he fashioned his own clothes of deerskin. He constructed adobe-covered building with hand-hewn timbers. He mined copper, smelted it, refined it, and made utensils. He even made his own flintlock rifles, boring them on an ingenious handmade machines, to “save the bother of sore-bought ammunition.” To pay for infrequent trips to Burgdorf (pop. 6, in winter 0), where he purchased only powder, books, and Darjeeling tea, he panned gold.

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Sylvan’s pole bridge, pinned precariously to the sheer face of a cliff high above the roiling River of No Return, constitutes the only path to the outside world.

-- KK  

Available from Amazon