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

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

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Mommy's Helper

Tapi Drinking Fountain


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.
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

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by DreamFarm

Safeglides Tap-In Felt Furniture Pads


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


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

Available from Amazon

Homesteading Alone


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
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.

Fishing in the shallows with a single pronged spear.

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.
One Man’s Wilderness
Sam Keith, from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke
1999 (2010), 223 pages

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
The Last of the Mountain Men
Harold Peterson
1969, 160 pages
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.

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

Tree Houses

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Tree houses are impractically romantic. There is no one book on how to make this recurring romance as practical as possible, but these two books by Peter Nelson contain the best suggestions and useful advice for building a real live-in tree house I’ve seen so far. The Treehouse Book has lots of fabulous examples in the US and a few chapters on how-to. His follow-up book, New Treehouses of the World, gathers inspirational examples from Thailand, New Zealand and other spots with tree-house culture, and has a short chapter on new tree-house technology. Main thing to remember when building a tree house is that trees move, over minutes and years. It’s closer to building a boat in the air. That’s why there’s plenty ideas in these books for any small house, even those not arboreal.

– KK

The Treehouse Book
Peter and Judy Nelson with David Larkin
2000, 224 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Sweet Birch — A strong tree with shiny, waterproof bark that used to be stripped off for wintergreen or birch beer. Use in a group.

70′ high — spread 50′



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New Treehouses of the World
Pete Nelson
2009, 223 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Trees in the northwest grow surprising quickly, so I prefer a GL (Garnier Limb) with a longer stem, the part of the GL that sticks out from the tree. While trees grow taller only at their tips, they grow in girth all long their length. As a tree puts on rings it envelops the GL, making the artificial limb even stronger. The tree will eventually push a beam out along the stem of the GL (the reason I prefer a longer stem) in much the same way the tree’s roots might lift a heavy concrete sidewalk.

A “heavy limb,” also designed by Greewood, holds up a bucket-style bracket attached to a large glue-laminated beam. There are numerous styles of artificial limbs, or tree anchor bolts (TABs).

An elegant platform takes shape around the old-growth Sitka spruce. Occasionally a tree will resist a building project, but this magnificent specimen remained calm and allowed us to proceed without protest.





This tool literally saved me thousands of dollars and incalculable emotional stress. Watercop attaches to the water main on your house and is triggered by remote RF water sensors that can be placed anywhere. When triggered, it shuts off the main and stops all water flowing into the house.

I installed the Watercop 5 years ago with remote sensors in 4 locations and it sat silently, doing absolutely nothing for all that time. A few weeks ago we got back from a week long vacation and immediately discovered that there was no water coming through our faucets. My first thought was that the Watercop had experienced a power fault and failed closed.


I went down to the basement and, in fact, the Watercop was closed. I turned it back on and heard a gusher from our furnace room. You can imagine my shock when I ran into the furnace room and discovered that the floor of our 15-year-old hot water heater had burst and the Watercop sensor in the room was submerged.

I don’t even want to contemplate what would have happened during that week if there had been no automatic shutoff on the main. The damage to our house and personal possessions, along with the inevitable mold, would have been a disaster.

Not only did it work flawlessly, but you can qualify for an insurance discount if you you have it installed by a licensed plumber (you can install it yourself, but it does require decent plumbing skills). As far as setup, you can place the sensors anywhere. The only downsides I have found is that it is not cheap, you have to replace the batteries annually, and it runs on A/C power meaning that when the power fails so does the device.

Despite these few drawbacks, I can not recommend the WaterCop highly enough. This is, without a doubt, the most valuable tool I have ever purchased.

-- Peter Bee  

WaterCop 3/4-inch Valve and Three RF Sensors

Manufactured by and available from DynaQuip

Powerline Ethernet Adapters and Powerstrip Liberators


I’ve used various powerline adapters for several years. They now can go up to 500 megabits per second, but 85 or 200 will be cheaper. I currently use TrendNet Powerline routers.

Why not use wifi? The bands are becoming crowded. You can try to use 5Ghz N routers, and they help, but if all your other devices – your phone, iPod, Kindle all have to use the 2.4GHz wifi, it can get congested. Wireless USB peripherals and Bluetooth also use the same band. Not everything supports the 5GHz band, so your laptop might not
work, or you will need a special card or adapter for your desktop. Then there’s securing things and getting the network password right. And in apartments, every one of your neighbors is using the same band.

Powerline adapters need passwords, but they are between the adapters and you only have to use the setup utility once. They are basically ethernet bridges. I have my cable router plugged in where the cable comes in and the signal is best, then have my wifi and powerline adapters plugged into that router (it has 4 ports). I’ve not had any problem streaming or even sending files between computers. I have several 200Mb/s refurbished models and they work well for that, but I have gigabit switches at my central computer “nerve center”. The powerline adapters also make printers a lot easier to setup. I have a Brother printer that is finicky about Wifi: it can attach USB, Ethernet, or Wifi, but even after typing in the correct information when attached with one of these other methods it often “fails to associate”. Instead, I just use the powerline adapter, and instantly it is on ethernet with no headaches.

Ziotek ZT1212542 Power Strip Liberator 14-Inch Extension, 5-Pack.jpeg

Well, there is one. A powerline adapter uses up an electrical socket, which is where the “Liberator” comes in. Basically, a 3 pronged pass-through extension cord. The short plug-depth seems to play well with the powerline adapter, and the extension is hefty enough for my laser printer. The Liberators also work well with power strips or even to go sideways when space is at a premium.

There are a few rare cases where powerline adapters have problems. One is if there is something extremely electrically noisy on the same branch (and if it isn’t noisy you need the passwords to prevent your neighbors from snooping). This usually involves some huge motor, arc welding, or other industrial process involving intermittent high current. Another thing is if there are any ground loops or ifhot and ground get swapped by adapters or bad wiring. Also it helps to avoid circuits with dimmers and microwaves, though I’ve only had the problem when some part of the house wiring was wrong enough to show bars on my old CRT TV when the microwave was on. The powerline signal cannot pass through the large (utility pole) transformers. There is a length limit, but I haven’t been in a position to see how fast the signal goes at hundreds or thousands of feet.

If wifi works and the total cost of adapters and such is low, it might be a be a better solution, but for reasonable distances where there is lots of interference or if you only have ethernet, nothing beats powerline adapters.

-- Thomas Z  

TRENDnet 200 Mbps Powerline AV Adapter Kit

Available from Amazon

TRENDnet 500 Mbps Powerline AV Adapter Kit

Available from Amazon

Power Strip Liberators
14-inches long
Pack of five for $18

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by TRENDnet

Sample Excerpts:

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This illustration demonstrates how the powerline can be used to extend the range of a home’s ethernet without additional wiring or the use of WiFi.

Neat Sheets

Neat Sheets.jpeg

I have a small amount of stuff that I want within easy reach at night, including my cellphone, lip balm, and a small bottle of water. I was considering housing it in a bedside caddy or organizer, but wasn’t thrilled by the idea of buying a uni-tasking extra product just for that one purpose. Searching for a better solution, I stumbled across Neat Sheets sheet sets from a company called Everest Luxury Linens. These sheets come with sewn-on side pockets on the fitted sheets which serve as convenient repositories for whatever you want within reach while you’re in bed.


Neat Sheets also have sewn-on tags at the foot of the sheet, to (as the company says on its site) help you get the right corner of the sheet on the right corner of the mattress, every time. I hesitated to buy Neat Sheets, because the site had a slightly gimmicky infomercial-style vibe. But a few months ago I did buy them, and they are terrific. They are exactly what’s described on the site, and I find they make my life just a tiny bit easier every single day. As a minimalist and a fan of good design, I’m really pleased.

-- Sue Gardner  

Neat Sheets Sheet Set
Twin to California King

Available from and manufactured by Neat Sheets