August 2011 Archives - 3/4 - Bob Vila

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The Organic Mattress: My “Green” Nursery Challenge

jprovenz organic baby mattress green nursery challenge“You will never sleep again!” is something that people love to say to expecting parents.  But, I decided my baby (and therefore my husband and I) would sleep happily, comfortably, and safely.  On what, was the question.

My first nursery purchase was the ever-practical crib mattress.  After reading a mattress article in The New York Times about harmful flame-retardant chemicals like PBDE’s (which have been found in breast milk), I knew that I wanted an organic mattress; one that was VOC-free and used natural flame retardants like cotton, wool, and natural latex.

At one national mattress retailer, their “organic” crib mattress had only 20% organic material—soy—the rest was memory foam with potentially toxic VOCs!  Perhaps the way to go was the smaller, mom-and-pop shops.  Of the indie sellers I located, none were within driving distance from our Jersey digs.  I certainly wanted to test the mattresses in person (isn’t that half the fun?).  And, if I didn’t pick a comfy mattress, I felt certain that our future soccer player would complain about it…at 4 a.m.!

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Tool or Art? You Decide

Tool or Art?

When does a simple hand tool—let’s say a saw—become a work of art?  For tool collectors, the answer is an easy one: when the tool bears some historic pedigree or exhibits the natural patina of a well-used, but well-maintained carpenter’s companion.

For attendees of local art shows, the answer can be quite different, as I discovered when I stumbled upon these works of art at a local craft fair.  Rather than let unused saws go into early retirement, an enterprising artist decided to turn them into art forms.  With a little acrylic paint and a masterful hand, he was able to elevate the basic, crosscut, ragged-toothed handsaw from being an article of work into the work itself.

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How To: Install a Light Fixture

Since my current residence is only half finished, there are a lot of fixture-less light boxes in the ceilings—which means I am tripping over tools in the middle of the night more often than I care to admit.

Electrical DIY projects are not a favorite of mine; probably a result of being shocked as a child by the current from a cut phone line (or perhaps the innate fear of sudden death by electrocution). But for simple electrical work around the house, a little knowledge and the right tools can make the work slightly less intimidating and—more importantly—less shocking.


Here are a couple of things you should know about electricity and residential wiring before you get started.

– All electric power is fed through the meter to your breaker panel. If you shut something off at the panel there is no power to the wires or boxes in the house.
– Shutting something off at the switch does not necessarily mean that there is no power to the wires in the electrical box.
– When looking at wires, black or red is the current, white is neutral, and green or copper is ground.
– Don’t stick a bobby pin into an electrical outlet, even if your cousin dares you to.

What You’ll Need

How to Install a Light Fixture - Tools and Materials

Photo: Kit Stansley

To replace or install a light fixture, here’s what you’ll need:
Voltage detector (not strictly necessary but highly recommended)
Wire strippers
Light fixture (a simple pull chain fixture is pictured but most fixtures install the same way)
Work light/flashlight if working in an area without natural light
Wire nuts (depending on your fixture)


Step 1: Shut off power
For some fixtures you can simply shut the power off at the switch, but I recommend always shutting power off at the breaker. If you’re lucky, the breakers on your electrical panel will be labeled. If not it’s a bit of a guessing game, shutting off breakers and then using the voltage detector to make sure the area you’re going to be working in isn’t “hot.” (The voltage detector will beep and light up when a current is present.) I always power down my computer before randomly flipping off breakers … just in case.

Step 2: Connect wires
A standard box for a light fixture will have three wires, a white (neutral), black (current), and copper (ground.)

How to Install a Light Fixture - Connect Wires

Photo: Kit Stansley

A permanent fixture may have a plate that will be connected to the two screw holes on either side of the box, and I find it’s easier to have that done before connecting the wires (particularly on a heavy fixture that will need to be supported while wires are being connected.)

Wires may be connected to the fixture in different ways. In this case, the wires are wrapped around screws to make a connection. There may also be wires (of corresponding colors) in the fixture that would be connected to the ceiling wires with wire nuts.

In either case, use the wire stripper to remove 3/4″ of wire sheathing. To attach to screw connections, bend the wire into a U-shape, wrap around the screw, then crimp the wire closed and tighten the screw.  (White wire to silver screw, black wire to gold screw, ground to green screw.)

How to Install a Light Fixture - Wires to Screws

Photo: Kit Stansley

To attach wires to wires, twist like-colored wires together and then twist a wire nut over them.

Step 3: Attach fixture to box
This simple pull-chain fixture was attached with two screws that go directly into the box, but you may also have just one screw directly on to the mounting plate. Once the fixture is mounted, install a light bulb, turn the breaker back on, and let there be light.

How to Install a Light Fixture - Complete

Photo: Kit Stansley

For more on home electrical, consider:

The Electrical Rough-In
Electricity in the Modern Home
Installing Electrical Wiring in an Old Home

DIY Projects Anyone Can Do

All of the Best Hands-on Tutorials from
Get the nitty-gritty details you need—and the jaw-dropping inspiration you want—from our collection of the favorite projects ever featured on Whether your goal is to fix, tinker, build or make something better, your next adventure in DIY starts here.

Quick Tip: Design a “Green” Garden

Making some simple changes in what you plant and how you care for your garden can create a healthier space the whole family can enjoy.


Photo: Flickr

A Green, Healthy Garden
The old adage, what goes around comes around is especially true in your garden. Because plants aren’t the only things living there, your garden should be a friendly place for children, pets and you. Blanketing it with petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers is not only toxic, it kills the friendly insects, bacteria and fungus that are essential to a healthy garden.

Natural Alternatives
Fortunately, there are a lot of great natural options, like iron phosphate pellets for slugs, citrus oil-based weed killer and Pyola spray for pest insects. Products like these use naturally occurring chemicals to solve common garden problems, and they’re worth a closer look.

Organic Materials
Probably the best thing you can do for your garden is to add organic material to the soil with compost. Unlike chemical additives, nutrients in compost are available to plants as they need them, making it very difficult to use too much.

Native Planting Is Green
What you plant is even more important than how you plant it. If it’s native to your area, it will probably do better in your garden and require far less water, fertilizer and hassle than something exotic. Rather than coddling a vast expanse of lawn, design areas with mulch, low groundcover plants or even a rock garden. You’ll use far fewer chemicals that can leach into the soil and the water supply, and you won’t have to work as hard all season!

Green Garden Tools
Another way to be green in the garden is to use non-polluting garden tools. Instead of cranking out exhaust with the rototiller or tractor, pick up a shovel or a hand mower and save yourself a trip to the gym.

Demolition and Excavation: The 12-Year Kitchen

Hazmat suits protect lead abatement specialists during demolitionWhen you own a house built in 1920, you have lead—it’s in the solder on old pipes, and in the paint on old walls.  When you have kids, you worry about lead—exposure can affect their learning, their breathing, their health.  We do what we can, by filtering the water that comes out of those old pipes and by keeping intact layers of today’s lead-free paint over the old stuff. But when you start knocking down walls, you’re changing the equation.

So the first step of building our new kitchen would be testing for lead in the old one. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires the test, even though our house was almost guaranteed to fail it. And it did, of course. Interior and exterior walls all had lead-based paint on them, under a few decades’ worth of safer paint. That meant hiring an EPA-certified lead-safe demolition company instead of a bunch of guys with sledgehammers. (Ka-ching! Before we’d even started, we had the first $5,000 upcharge in our contract.)

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Understanding Costs

Here's how to understand the costs of construction and materials.



Frank Lloyd Wright was once asked if he could design a $10,000 house. The question was asked many decades ago, so it wasn’t so absurd as it sounds today.

Wright replied that yes, he certainly could. But he added a qualifier: One thing he couldn’t do would be to design a $20,000 house for $10,000.

Wright could sound like a wise guy at times, but those remain wise words. In fact, the same principle he espoused underlies a simple formula you might keep in mind as you think about the estimated cost of your project

Budget – Quality of Materials x Size

It’s deceivingly simple but it’s practically a law of nature. Especially if you are concerned with cutting dollars out of your budget, you will have to shrink the house or compromise on some of the materials. True, there are other extraordinary options that we will discuss later (being your own contractor, for example) but in general this formula is painfully accurate.

If you discover you can’t afford to do what you want to do, then think about reducing the size of the job or finding cheaper alternatives.

Drilling with Care

Follow these simple steps to avoid hang-ups in your next drilling project.

How to Use a Drill


Drilling isn’t difficult and, at least in comparison to sawing, it isn’t particularly dangerous. Still, skilled drillers drill with care.

Fixing the Workpiece
Place the workpiece in a clamp or vise. This leaves both hands free to manage the drill, and will prevent the piece from moving as you drill.

Locating the Hole
When drilling metal or using a twist drill on wood, you’ll need to establish a precise center point for the hole to be drilled. A punch, or a nail in the case of wood or sheet metal, can be used to make a tiny hollow to start the hole. A pilot hole drilled with a smaller drill may be necessary if you’re drilling a large hole in metal or hardwood.

Related: 10 Ways to Use Your Cordless Drill/Driver

Drilling the Hole
• Place the drill bit on the center point indentation. Begin drilling at a slow speed to be sure the bit doesn’t wander away from the center point.

• Never force the drill; the machine will slow or groan if you do. Too much pressure is more likely to dull or break the bit than to quicken the drilling process.

• Slow to medium speeds suit metal and masonry drilling; fast speeds will help you race through wood. Monitor the progress of the drill as it proceeds through the workpiece. If the drill appears to lug or jams, withdraw it partway, allowing the bit to clear the debris from the hole.

• As the bit approaches the far side, drill more slowly. When a drill bit breaks through the far side rapidly—or if you are applying considerable weight to the drill—the edges of the exit hole will probably be ragged, leaving burrs if the material is metal or tearing out large chips from the wood. Sometimes, too, a workpiece that isn’t properly fixed in place will spin on the drill as it passes through the far side. Finish off the hole gently for safe, smooth work.

Thinking Through the Design

Whether you want to add new space, improve existing space, or simply put unused space to use, it's helpful to define the task and to put what you want on paper.

Home Redesign

Photo: Flickr

With a thorough understanding of your existing house, you are now equipped to think about changing it. It’s time to define the task and to put some notion of what you want to do on paper.

You need to decide whether the task consists of adding new space, improving existing space, or simply putting unused space to use. You may be adding something entirely new onto an existing home; perhaps you’re finishing the unfinished, converting a basement or attic into a livable, finished space; or you may be transforming what you already have in your home or apartment.

Doubling the size of your house with a new addition is not the same as, say, putting a second bath in that small back bedroom, but the steps in the process are essentially the same. The bigger the project, the more time, money, and headaches are involved, but it is generally a matter of more of the same elements.

Regardless of the scope of your project, the first step is to decide what you want and need. Thus, you need to explore those desires. The next step toward actual construction, will be to create—or have created—plans that conform to the require­ments of local building ordinances. That will be the subject of the next chapter. But in moving toward those plans, you need to make numerous subjective decisions about style and materials and answer a multitude of questions for yourself or your architect/designer.

So consider the questions that follow. They will help you develop a feeling for a design you can live with.

San Francisco Grabs the “Green” Crown

wallg Flickr San Francisco best green city

Photo: Flickr

In a new survey sponsored by Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit, San Francisco outpaced 27 other major metropolitan areas to win bragging rights as the greenest city in North America. Vancouver, New York City, and Seattle followed in the overall rankings, while Detroit finished last, just behind St. Louis, Cleveland, and Phoenix. Nine categories, ranging from land use and carbon emissions to air quality, transportation, and buildings, were used to calculate which urban hubs were doing the best job of cleaning up the environment.

A powerhouse on the eco-scene, San Francisco came by its first-place win fair and square. The city recycles 77% of its municipal waste, mandates composting, and boasts the longest public-transportation network in America. Retrofitting residential and commercial properties with water-efficient plumbing fixtures has been mandatory in the city since 2009, and San Francisco offers free low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators as well as rebates on toilet replacements—measures that will potentially save the city up to four million gallons of water daily by 2017.

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Getting Started: The 12-Year Kitchen

Remodeling Kitchen

Photo: Shutterstock

Space planning for our kitchen project took more than six months, but we were thrilled with the plans we agreed on. Now we just needed our builder and a building permit, and we’d be ready to go. We filed the plans with the city, and we called our first-choice contractor.

Kitchen plans as filed with the cityKeith Mazzarello is the best contractor in our neighborhood, a perfectionist we knew would do everything exactly right. He’d done some small jobs for us over the years, and he’d recently completed a renovation of our side porch that changed our lives—the room became a beautiful year-round part of our home instead of a drafty glorified storage room. He really does sweat the details, and he never gets caught by the unexpected—he anticipates everything, and he always has solutions for the quirky problems that inevitably come up when you work on an old house. The only question was whether we’d be able to afford him.

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