Rinnai Direct Vent Wall Furnace

I’ve had a similar Rinnai direct vent heater similar to the newer model for over 3 years. It replaced an older Italian made direct vent heater that was poorly designed. The Rinnai has a digital thermostat and uses a piezo lighter. It comes on reliably and there’s no pilot light at all. It direct vents to the outside through a very small pipe and is very easy to install. This heater heats my office in Connecticut from October to April reliably and efficiently.

It has a low setting that keeps the temperature above 5OF and then you can set the thermostat from 60 to your preference. When it’s 0°F outside my office is comfortable and my total heating costs for the season are around $300.

They have versions for propane and natural gas. If you have a small space that needs to be heated reliably you should consider one of these heaters. They also have larger models but I’ve never tried them. I had considered putting in a heat pump/air conditioner (Mr.Slim). It would be interesting to see which would be more efficient/costly to run.

-- J. Sciarra  

Available from Amazon



Programmable Digital Outlet Timer

Except for one cool feature, this is a typical wall-outlet timer for turning things on and off once or twice a day. It works well once it is programmed correctly, but you know where this is going: you have to press each button the right number of times in exactly the right sequence to achieve correct programming. There is no Ctrl-Z “undo” command.

The feature that is cool is a little slot in the housing. You fold up the programming instructions, slip them into the slot, and they are there when you need to re-program the device. I wish every programmable device in my house had such a slot and a set of instructions that fit into it.

I asked Woods (Coleman Cable) if any other of their Woods timers have this slot. They replied, “Only this timer has the slot for instruction currently. Future timer designs may have this feature.” And Woods doesn’t even tell you about it in their promotional literature.

It’s such a useful feature that I write about it in hopes that it becomes more widely spread.

-- Doug Wilber  

Woods Indoor 24-Hour Digital Outlet Timer
$14

Available from Amazon



SmartJars

Somehow our work bench keeps getting taken over by a crazy mess and our current organizational system, the one left to us with the house, was just not cutting it for how we use the garage (aka Halloween Craziness takes over). We found SmartJars in May 2013 at the Bay Area MakerFaire and were impressed with them. Basically a build-it-how-you-need-it solution, with containers that can be popped on and off a standard peg board for use.

You attach SmartJars’ colored jar holders to your peg board, organize and color code as you like. Then you snap the plastic jars into the holders for storing. The jars can be removed and returned to their holders easily, but are held securely when snapped in place. The jars are clear so you can see the contents; you can also add labels to the front for more specifics. You can rearrange the jars if you choose. Color coding my jars has helped let me tell other people where things are. Such as look for rubber bands in the Yellow household goods section. Or Nails are in white and screws are in blue. And the color coding also helps me put the jars back in the right areas if I have taken more than one out at a time. The jars are big enough (2.5″ in diameter and 4.5″ tall, or 10 fluid oz.) to hold some larger bolts and other items that tend to take up a bit more room than many organizing systems have, but more of that room is in the length that sticks out from the peg board, so the footprint on the peg board doesn’t take up too much space and you have room for lots of the jars.

We bought a bunch during their pre-release promotion and have reorganized our garage work bench. We aren’t quite done with the reorganization, but its working well so far. There have been several times this year during our haunted house build when someone has needed something and I have been able to produce the jar with that item right away.

We have seen photos from people who have used them under kitchen cupboards to organize spices as well. They are very versatile.

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-- Rachel Lea Fox  

Smart Jars
6 Jar Starter Pack: $20



Deckkeeper Tie-Downs

My deck is raised off the ground by about 4 feet and there is an above ground pool built into the deck. Every spring and every fall, I struggle to open/close the pool. The big headache is securing a tarp to cover the pool.

When I had pressure treated decking, I would just screw some hooks into the decking and use some bungee cords to secure the tarp. I recently replaced the pressure treated boards with composite decking. There is no way I’m going to drill holes into my beautiful boards!

So, I’ve struggled with securing the tarp. I attached bungies to the railing, I secured it through the boards under the deck, you name it. All of these solutions took time, effort and were simply not easy. I had to find a better way!

I heard about these DeckKeeper Tie Down devices from Ask This Old House a few years ago. They slip between the boards, include bungee cords to attachment and protect the surface of the deck. I bought them from Amazon and closed the pool this fall using them. What a difference! I secured the tarp in the a few minutes, I didn’t have to crawl under the deck.

-- Brian Tobin  

Deckkeeper two tie down cords and anchors
$13

Available from Amazon



Twist A Lite

I need to read a little before sleeping. My wife needs as dark as possible before sleeping. This little light works great for both of us. I’ve tried many other reading lights before but this works the best. It easily adjusts the light direction with a small narrow beam that hits the page but doesn’t go much beyond. Powered by a single AA cell, this flexible light can be worn around your neck, or coiled on a table, and has 3 white LEDs on each end. I can get good results just using one of the lights pointed in the opposite direction of my wife.

-- Bill King  

Twist A Lite
$15

Available from Amazon



Schlage Keypad Deadbolt

I have had this lock on my front door for three years. The advantages are numerous: one less key on the key ring, illuminated keypad, never lock myself out, easy to give the code to relatives, friends, dog walkers or anyone needing access to your house without you present. But, most importantly, when my wife has to run back in the house to get one last thing, I don’t have to turn the car off so she can use my key.

When the 9-volt battery start to go the keypad blinks, so you don’t end up getting locked out with a dead battery. (It will also accept a key).

-- Steve Haslet  

Schlage Camelot Keypad Deadbolt
$103

Available from Amazon



Eco Brick

I love heating my house with my fireplace and wood stove. Its carbon neutral, it targets the heat where I want it, and somehow it just feels warmer then forced air heat.

I don’t love dealing with firewood. I don’t like storing it, trying to keep it dry, and I especially don’t like going outside when it is freezing cold to bring an armful inside.

That’s where Eco Bricks come in. They are compressed hardwood sawdust bricks that you burn in a fireplace just like logs. They are kiln dried and bug free, so they can be stored inside. Since they are kiln dried, they always light easily.

BTU wise, the company says that a pallet of Eco Bricks are equivalent to a full cord of hardwood firewood. Where I am, a pallet runs $235, which is roughly the same as a cord of firewood.

Since these things are so dense and dry, some care must be taken not to over-fire your fireplace or stove. I’ve been using them for three winters, and haven’t had any problems yet.

I’ve got about a half pallet in my basement queued up. I’m looking forward to my first fire of the season.

-- Clark Case  

Eco-Brick pressed sawdust fireplace fuel
Find a local retailer here

Sample Excerpts:

[Enjoy this video of a one-hour Eco Brick burn. - Mark]




Pocket Rocket Outside Diameter Rule

I work in a pulp mill and this tool comes in very handy when sizing up pipes in the field. The calipers quickly measure outside diameters of any round object up to 16 inches in diameter. The gauge is marked with actual inch diameter and also standard iron pipe sizes. When opened completely it also doubles 14″ ruler. Folded, the rule easily fits in your pocket. For years I used PI tapes but this is much quicker and easier to use on pipes in hard to reach or tight spots — you only need access to a small section of the pipe to get a read, not wrap the tape all the way around. Simple one handed operation, great when you are on a ladder. They are available in plastic or aluminum, I prefer the durability of the aluminum, it is worth the extra few dollars.

-- David Riecken  

Pocket Rocket Pipe / Diameter Caliper and Ruler Black Anodized Aluminum
$35

Available from Amazon



Wiring Complete

The clearest, most intelligible, most up-to-date, step-by-step instructions of how to wire most household electrical jobs. Heavily (1,000 photos), smartly illustrated. Besides unraveling the complexities of 3-way switching (I always need help with this), this second-edition deals with other wiring besides electrical power: cable, phone, ethernet. Despite the wireless era, I’ve got more wires in our home every year, and this book has encouraged me to tackle them myself. The guide is supremely practical, full of great tips for working with real wires in real walls. It helped me figure out how to tap a power outlet inside my house for an outdoor line. I can’t think of anything it misses.

-- KK  

Wiring Complete
Michael Litchfield, Michael McAlister
2013, 272 pages
$15

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

In some old houses, the neutral wires — rather than the hot wires — may be attached (incorrectly) to receptacles or switches, in violation of code. So when testing existing receptacles, switches, or fixtures, test /all/ wires for voltage.

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Each multimedia connector is to the left of the cable It terminates. From left: RG6 F-connector, dual-shielded RG6 coaxial cable; RJ-45 (eight-pin) jack, Cat 6 UTP data cable; RJ-ll (six-pin) jack, Cat 3 phone cable; two RCA audio jacks (sometimes called banana jacks), 14-gauge low-loss audio cable.

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A nut-driver bit speeds up splicing, but be careful not to over twist wires.

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They then use a plumb laser to transfer marks to the ceiling.

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The Owner-Built Log House * Log Construction Manual

owner-builtLog homes are fashionable. You can order one pre-manufactured from a catalog. Or you can make your own crude log shell for under $5,000 (see the previously reviewed How to Build This Log Cabin for $3,000).

Or you can use the system featured in these books to make a log home so finely crafted that it is more like living in a gigantic piece of dove-tailed furniture. Called scribed-fit, this method produces handcrafted joints thinner than a piece of paper. You won’t save any money this way, but you’ll live in hand-made shelter of utmost craftsmanship. That joy can be worth the trouble.

And trouble it is. Building with logs this way is similar to post-and-beam construction: the scale and details are beyond a single individual. You need a team, and you should try something small first. Your path is made much easier by either of these two books.

The Owner-Built Log House is geared to the dedicated individual willing to do as much as this hard work as they can themselves, from peeling logs, to hoisting them using pulleys, to carving notches and chinking. It presents the task of building a log house as part construction project and part lifestyle — since it will consume your life. Remember, a shell of a house is only a fraction of the work. This guide is good about detailing the ways to finish it off, and the tricks need to say, get wiring in the logs.

logAt the highest end of quality is Log Construction Manual, the Ferrari of log homes. These aren’t houses as much as wooden jewel boxes. Most guides are based on the personal experience of the author building their own house (see above); this one is based on the author’s experience teaching thousands of others to build theirs. You get a comprehensive course, laying out the steps, the logic of the steps, and much hard-earned wisdom anticipating your problems as you learn how to scribe-fit logs into a house. But to be honest, the precision and energy needed to build this way demands you hire contractor help. You’ll probably end up working alongside the pros, perhaps teaching them some new notching skills.

In many ways, building a fitted-log cabin is like building a wooden boat in your backyard. Many will begin, few will finish on their own. The magnitude of this quest should not be underestimated.

-- KK  

The Owner-Built Log House
B. Mackie
2011, 248 pages
Available from Amazon

Log Construction Manual
Robert Wood Chambers
2002, 272 pages
Available from Amazon
Book’s website

Sample Excerpts:

From The Owner-Built Log House:

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Cutting the groove while standing on the wall. You need a steady hand and a good sense of balance.

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A true and accurate cut may be obtained with a chainsaw equipped with guide pads. These are now available commercially, or they can be made.

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From Log Construction Manual:

Log Homes Don’t Waste Trees

One of the most widespread and damaging myths is that log homes use extravagant amounts of wood. It does appear that “you could build a couple homes out of the logs that go into one log house,” as I’ve heard people say. But, an average log home uses about the same volume of trees as a conventional, stickframed house of the same size.

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On each wall, we alternate the direction that tips and butts point every time we add another log. This helps keep walls from becoming tipped.

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I recommend you build walls so that the centerline of each log is plumb above the center of the wall. Trying to make one side of a wall more or less plumb can be difficult, unattractive, and perhaps unstable.

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A tightly-fitting round notch. Note that there are no saddles, so it is not a saddle notch.

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Top: Husqvarna 362XP with 24″ bar.
Middle: Husqvarna 354XP with 18″ bar.
Bottom: Jonsered 2016 electric with 16″ bar.

I have taught more than 1000 people to cut notches, and I have seen chainsaws of almost every model, age, and condition. I’ll be blunt — an average student with a great saw does a lot better than a great student with an average saw.

Husqvarna and Stihl are the saws that I recommend. Most chain saws are not suited for log building. And, buy a professional model saw, not one designed for homeowners. Stihl and Husqvarna both have a “pro” line of saws, and you should choose from these. Expect to pay $550 to $725 USD (in 2011).

Every saw has its own feel and character. These differences are not easy for beginners to recognize, but they are real, and important. Stihls are easy to start — when cold or hot. They have a distinctly softer suspension than Huskys — the handles have a more flexible attachment to the motor, and the bar also has a softer connection to the motor. Stihls drive like a Cadillac. My choice for heavy ripping is a Stihl: the big Stihls (bigger than 80cc) have power, are easy to start, and have soft suspension.

Husqvarna saws are more difficult to start than Stihls, especially when they are hot. Huskys also have a harder feel to their suspension. I have more control over the bar and chain — it’s like there is a more direct link between what my hands are trying to do, and what happens. Huskys drive like a Ferrari. My choice for notching is definitely a Husky: great power-to-weight ratio, high chain speed, finesse, and superb control.