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Christopher Simmons

A while back, I posted about how I vented my microwave through an exterior wall. One of our readers asked whether the way I did it was “up to code”. It was, but I had forgotten to include in my post a photo of the duct work piece that showed that it was. Meeting code for duct work is important, but meeting code for electrical work may be even more important.

Recent Article on Common Electrical Code Violations

The December/January 2012 issue of The Family Handyman magazine has an excellent article, entitled

“The 8 Most Common Electrical Code Violations”.

The article lists those 8 code violations along with lots of helpful additional points on both electrical installation and repairs. A couple of areas the article addresses include

  • selecting the correct type of circuit breakers
  • using tamper-resistant receptacles (for installation and replacements)
  • installing flat weather-resistant receptacle covers for outside or wet or damp locations.

If you subscribe to The Family Handyman, you should be able to read the article on line.  If not, you should pick up a copy of the December/January 2012 issue.

Electrical Accidents Can Be Fatal

Complying with the electrical code helps reduce fires and electrical accidents.  An electrical burn can cause much more serious injury than a fire burn.  And electrocution accidents happen all the time, not just to electricians or folks working on home electrical projects, but also to people working on other projects.  Frequent victims are

  • landscapers
  • heavy equipment operators on construction sites
  • anyone using an aluminum ladder outside near power lines.

For more electrical accident resources that my own Dad has put together, you should click here.



RoombaMy wife and I both have our own careers, we do not have a maid, and we both hate vacuuming.  So, a couple years ago, I bought a Roomba vacuum cleaner from Costco as a Christmas present to ourselves.  This robot vacuum has been a huge upgrade for our home.

Before we bought the Roomba, I was skeptical.  But then a friend from work told me she had bought one the year before, and that it worked great.  She has a dog and a cat and lives in the country, and her Roomba still managed to keep the floors clean.  She told me her only regret was that she had not bought the model one level up, because it would have returned to its home base charger station and recharged itself after cleaning the floors.

Our Roomba Upgrade

Based on my friend’s report, we bought the Roomba 550 from Costco.  At the time, Costco had it discounted by maybe $30.   Now, you can find it online here.  Also, the 550 and 551 models seem to be unique to Costco, so it you are hunting for a similar one from another store, look for a model number in the 500 series.

You can schedule the Roomba 550 to run at any time once a day, and it will return to its home base and recharge itself. We have ours set up to run during the day while we are at work.  When we walk back in the door, it looks like housekeeping has come.

Many models come with a couple of accessories, like extra filters, and, in our case, “virtual walls”.  These are 5″ high towers with infrared emitters on top.  You set up the towers to keep the Roomba from going into another room.  I have read that they also help the Roomba navigate back to the home base.

You do have to empty the bagless bin each day and clean the brushes every couple of days.  But the whole process takes about 2 minutes.

What everybody asks

Everybody asks us two questions:

  1. Does the Roomba go from hard floors to carpet without stopping? and
  2. How would my dog react to the Roomba?

The Roomba goes straight from hardwoods or vinyl floors to carpet.  In our house, that means going up and over a runner dividing the hardwood floor in the foyer to the carpet in the living room.  Our Roomba just goes right up over the runner and has never had a problem making the transition between floor types.

Also, our dog, Sam, is a Jack Russell mix.  At first, she barked a few times at the Roomba.  Now she just moves out of the way.  Otherwise she ignores it completely.   Above, you can see a video of her interacting with it.  Of course, your dog’s results may vary.

Roomba Maintenance Issues

We have had three maintenance issues.

First, about 10 months after we bought it, the Roomba stopped picking up dirt.  The suction still worked, but the brushes weren’t spinning correctly.  The Roomba was still under warranty,  and iRobot sent out a replacement part assembly.  5 screws later, and we were back in business.

Second, after the one-year warranty expired, the battery died.  I found this one on  It actually holds a charge longer than the original equipment battery, so the roomba cleans even longer.

Third, almost three years after we bought it, the roomba refused to move.  It would start as scheduled, and move just off its home base, but then it would spin in place, and after a few minutes of spinning, it would beep 9 times and then stop.  Roomba’s website suggests this can be caused by dirt inside the sensors that determine when the roomba has hit a wall.  But after cleaning the areas with compressed air as iRobot recommended, the roomba still did not work.  iRobot offered to replace the robot itself with a new one for $129.00 because ours was out of warranty.

Roomba IR emitterLuckily, I found a very helpful website that showed how to fix the problem and where to buy the necessary parts.  Apparently, the sensors work like an elevator eye.  When the bumper is pressed (by a wall or other object), a lever is pushed between an infrared beam inside the sensor compartment, breaking the beam, and telling the robot’s computer that it needs to spin to get out of the way.  The problem is that the infrared LED had failed, so the computer thought the beam was always broken and the robot needed to just keep spinning.  The parts to replace the infrared beam and infrared sensor transistor for the left and the right sensors cost me $3.95 plus a priority mail cost of about $8.00.  This fix took 3 or 4 hours and required my wife’s steady hand to bravely hold the sensors’ very small printed circuit boards that I had to solder the new parts onto.  But the Roomba runs great once again, and it saved us about $110.00.

(Still) Love to Roomba

For us, adding this appliance really has been a huge home upgrade.  We still have to break out the upright vacuum about once a month, but the Roomba has freed us from daily vacuuming to keep up with everyday floor cleaning, including our dog’s shedding.  And while Sam initially barked at the Roomba, she quickly got used to it.  Now, she just gets up and moves out of the way.

Do You Roomba?

Does your Roomba work for you?  Is it worth the cost to you?  Would you buy another one?  For the upstairs? Leave a comment below and let folks know what you think about your Roomba.


Professional landscaping looks great and can add curb appeal and value to your home.  But professional landscaping is expensive.  So, instead of hiring a landscape company to do everything for me – with money I did not have, I hired a landscape architect to come out and draw me a landscape plan that I could implement myself. The wife and I have been very pleased with the results.  Below, you can see a photo of the “before” and slide shows of the “during” and “after”.  If I had it to do over again, there are a few things I would do differently.  I have set those things out at the bottom of this post.

My Professional Landscape Plan

The problem I had was that I lived in a relatively modest, new neighborhood.  What landscaping there was, was done by the builder.  So, the landscaping material was fairly sparse and not necessarily of the highest quality.  In addition, the soil in my neighborhood was notoriously bad, and my soil in particular consisted primarily of clay mixed with crush and run.

My first step was to meet with a local professional landscape architect, Bob Peter of Little and Little Landscape Architects, PLLC.  (I had worked with Bob and his company before in my job as a land condemnation lawyer for the City of Raleigh.)  I went over   my current situation and explained that what I wanted was to end up with a yard that was drought resistant and easy to maintain.  I told Bob that I wanted the yard to look great but I did not want to have to pay for or baby exotic plants and shrubs.  I wanted landscape materials that were about one step above what the builder had used.   Finally, I talked to him about his suggestions for what type of grass to use, and whether to put in a sprinkler or irrigation system.  (I live on the border between zones 7 and 8. Many people here have warm weather grass like Bermuda or Zoysia, while some have cool weather grass like Fescue.)  For about $500, Bob drew me the sketch shown above.


Technically, I did not take any “before” photos.  But here is one taken shortly after the builder finished building the house.

Before photo – part of the front yard just after the house was built.


The video below shows several “during” photos.  These photos were taken in June, 2007  after the soil preparation and grading and while we were putting in the irrigation and drainage systems.

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Preparing the soil

We had horrible dirt.  To try to fix the soil, I had 2 dump trucks of compost – not topsoil –  brought in.  I killed what was left of the fescue with roundup, and then spread the compost (about 3 inches deep), tilled it in to about 6-8 inches, and then re-graded parts of the yard by hand.

The compost was available locally at a municipal dump, and the folks who run it gave me the name of a dump truck driver who frequently delivers for the cost of the compost plus a very reasonable fee.

Irrigation System

I will cover the  irrigation system in a separate post.  I have included the irrigation construction photos above because the only ones I have that show the lack of landscaping in the “before” condition.  They’re just meant to show what wasn’t there before, not the ins and outs of the irrigation system itself.  But stay tuned!

Buying plants and landscaping material

The landscaping plan I purchased called for an extensive overhaul of my front, side, and back yards.  It meant purchasing large numbers of shrubs and trees.  For example, the plan showed the side yards edged with a total of 54 dwarf Yaupon hollies.  Around here, big box improvement stores and garden supply stores routinely sell 3-gallon dwarf Yaupons for $15 a piece.   In the backyard, the plan showed 10 fortune tea olives.  Regular retail on 5-gallon fortune tea olives was about $90 per plant.

When I saw the numbers adding up like this, I started asking around about wholesale nurseries.  I found about three of them, all along the same road, about 20 miles away in a neighboring county.  For the price of a fill up, I borrowed a friend’s pickup truck, and went and got about 80% of what I needed  – including all 54 dwarf Yaupons, 10 fortune tea olives, 3 7-gallon needle point hollies, about 5 Little Richard Abelias, plus some other stuff I cannot remember – all for about $450.  (Those $15 dwarf Yaupons were $4 per plant.  The $90 fortune tea olives were $10.)  The particular nursery I used and routinely recommend is called Old Stage Road Nursery.  It is located just out side of Angier, North Carolina:

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After getting all that material planted, I ended up going back for some small stuff, which I fit in my Honda Accord.  All told, I think the total cost of the landscaping material was around $750, or $800 including the gas for the pickup truck.


The flash video below shows after pictures taken this summer, about three summers from the “during” photos video above.  Also, you will notice we put in a fence.  (But that is a story for another post!)

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What we would have done differently (mistakes we made)

Doing this landscaping home improvement project was a big adventure.  My wife and I have been very happy with the results, but we made several key mistakes along the way.  I thought I would share those too, in case it helps others avoid them.

First, while we have been very happy with the Zenith Zoysia grass from SuperSod, I think it was a mistake to grow it from seed, instead of sodding it.  The seed itself was expensive – much more expensive than Fescue, for example.  Also, Zenith Zoysia seed takes 30 days of constant moisture to germinate and then three years to fully grow in.  Once it’s in, it looks great and wears well without being overly invasive and it’s drought resistant.  But I should have sodded.  The extra price for sod would have been more than outweighed by the extra money I spent watering in the seed. This was really a cash-flow decision: I did not have the cash for the sod. Looking back, I should have just put it on a credit card.

Second, to put in the irrigation and drainage pipes, I rented a trencher and did it myself.  This was an enormous and potentially very dangerous mistake.  Trenchers weigh 900 lbs and cannot be easily steered.  I was constantly worried about tipping over the edge of my terraced lot.  Also, even though I called NO CUTS to have the utility lines marked first (and you should too!), I was still worried I was going to clip an unmarkerd electric or gas line and kill myself trying to save a buck.  So, I should have just hired someone to come out and trench the yard.

Third, I should have paid a plumber to put in the backflow prevention device (aka the “RPZ”) for the irrigation system.  I pulled a permit and did it myself, with some help from a friend or two.  But getting it actually done and passed inspection took much more effort than I  thought.  The rest of the irrigation system was relatively straightforward.  Cutting and gluing PVC pipe is easy.  Cutting into the main line and setting up the RPZ and getting it passed inspection is a job for a plumber.


If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I will be happy to get back to you with any extra information or help that I can.


Sanitary sewer clean outs are critical for maintaining your connection to your sewer system.  Should a backup occur, getting to a clean out quickly can save you money and reduce the damage from an overflow inside your house.

Sewer clean outs are ugly tripping hazards

But no matter how important clean outs are, they sure can be eyesores.  They stick up out of the ground, are difficult to mow around, and can be tripping hazards.

My sewer clean out before.

My same clean out, facing front yard.

So, I put my sewer clean out below ground in an irrigation box.

The new covered box in place.

I used an irrigation box I had left over from putting in my sprinkler system.  But you can buy one for about $20 at any big box home improvement store.  I set the box and its cover flush with the ground.  So, no more trip hazard, and mowing is much easier – I just mow right over it.  And if I get really fired up, I use the string trimmer along the edges of the cover.

Cover comes off with a screwdriver and provides easy access to the clean out.

Steps I took to bury my sewer clean out

To do this upgrade, I used a regular shovel to excavate around the the existing above-ground pipe.  Then, I cut the pipe below the cap fitting, leaving enough pipe on the cap end so that I could re-use it.  I cut the remaining pipe even lower, and then used a union fitting to connect the pipe in the ground to the cap fitting, using the purple primer and green PVC glue you can buy almost anywhere.  In the photo, you can see the green cap fitting that I re-used and the white union fitting.  To discourage bugs, spiders, and frogs from using the box as a new home, I also set the box on a bed of gravel.

So, here’s the result.  No more ugly sewer clean out – until I need it.

Here's the after - with landscaping grown in and a new fence.

Cost of this home improvement project

The cost was about $3 for the union fitting and $4 for a bag of gravel.  As I said above, I already had an extra irrigation box, but they cost about $20, as I recall.  The purple primer and green PVC cement come in various sizes, but you can usually get a small combo pack for about $6.  So, starting from scratch – and assuming you already have a shovel – the cost would be about $33.

All things considered, the wife and I think this upgrade has really improved our curb appeal.  She is especially happy, since she didn’t do any digging – this time.

Sanitary Sewer Easements and Eminent Domain

BTW: This is, of course, a private, residential sanitary sewer project I did myself.  But big sewer projects are done all the time for residential and commercial property, frequently by municipalities or other governmental agencies. They often work with private developers in joint ventures, where the developer tries to purchase the necessary sewer easements from private property owners, and if it can’t, then the government condemns those easements through eminent domain. Usually, the developer then reimburses the government for its easement acquisition costs.  That’s the other side of the eminent domain joint venture. So, even a sewer eminent domain case can require help from sophisticated eminent domain lawyers.

Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.


Update: Avoid Code Violations!

A reader below raised the question of whether I did this duct work upgrade “to code”. I did, but it’s a great point. And along with duct work code, electrical code is key. It saves lives. To see the recent post on common electrical code violations as well a link to electrical accident resources, you should click here.

Venting Microwave Fan to Outside

I like to cook. So, one of the small upgrades that my wife and I have gotten the most enjoyment out of has been venting the over-the-range microwave fan through the exterior wall.  The tools and parts were cheap, the project was fairly simple, and and it has really cut down on the smoke and odor in the kitchen and in the whole house.

We live in a DR Horton house called a “Jordan” in the Greenbrier subdivision in Apex, North Carolina.  The microwave ovens in the Jordan models (and maybe in all the models in Greenbrier) are mounted above the oven/range against an exterior wall.

Ours is a Whirlpool Model No. MH6150XHQ-1, which Whirlpool apparently does not make any more.  Luckily, the previous homeowner saved the Microwave Installation Instructions, including the mounting template, as well as the Use and Care Guide.

Essentially, this project involved these steps:

  1. Unplug the microwave from the electrical outlet hidden in the cabinet directly above the microwave
  2. Dismount the microwave from the mounting bracket
  3. Remove the mounting plate that was screwed into the studs
  4. Cut a hole through the wall (using the ventilation holes in the mounting plate as a guide)
  5. Replace the mounting plate
  6. Switch the direction of the microwave’s fan to blow out the back
  7. Attach a ventilation swing door to the back of the microwave before the duct vent, so cold air won’t blow in from the outside
  8. Remount microwave
  9. Attach a ventilation duct through the outside wall to the microwave
  10. Caulk around the ventilation duct
  11. Plug the microwave back into the cabinet electrical outlet

A couple of key points:

  • I used a special stud/electric wire detector to make sure I was not going to cut though an electrical wire or anything else hidden in the wall.
  • I used a long 3/8″ bit I had from another project to drill holes all the way through the interior and exterior walls in the corners of the rectangle I was going to cut out of the wall.  Then I used a keyhole saw to saw through the drywall first, and then I went outside to cut through the hardy plank exterior.
  • There was, of course, fiberglass insulation in the wall, so I used gloves (and should have used a mask) to remove it from the hole area.
  • I ended up lifting the microwave myself, but it would have been much easier to do this project with two people.

Pros: Now, I can cook fish or bacon in the kitchen (instead of outside on the grill) without smelling up the whole house.  (Also, for better or worse, arriving guests can smell what’s for dinner.)

Cons: I should have done this about 5 minutes after I moved in.

Tools I used (or should have):

  • Safety glasses
  • Phillips screw driver or cordless driver/drill
  • Stud finder with “deep scan” to find electrical wiring or other stuff inside the wall
  • Long 3/8″ bit
  • Keyhole saw
  • Gloves and 3M-style mask
  • Caulk and caulking gun (you can also by caulk that does not need a gun)


  • Swinging door for rear ventilation that supposedly came with your microwave oven.  Our microwave, of course, was installed by the builder, we are the second owners, and have no idea where this part might be.  To find one, you might to jump on line or give the manufacturer a call.  I lucked out.  A very nice salesperson at the big box store that carries a similar model actually just gave me this part from a floor model.
  • The duct piece.

Here are some photos of me going through the process:



Bracket on the wall. (I scored through the smaller bracket holes - unnecessarily - the first time.)

Having drilled the corner holes, I started cutting the whole rectangle out with a keyhole saw, so the rectangular vent duct would fit.

Completed hole from the inside.

Completed hole from the outside.

Here's the fan directed out the back.

This swinging vent keeps cold air outside in winter. You might try Whirlpool, or just ask your friendly neighborhood big box store appliance manager for a spare from a floor sample.

My caulking skills were not very good, but the seal seems to have held.

Installed vent from outside toward the front of the house.


BTW: Dan asks a great question below about doing projects “to code.” But I also wanted to point out that code frequently applies to commercial property as well as residential. And commercial real estate disputes frequently arise, not just over code, but other issues, like adverse possession, eminent domain, and boundary disputes.  If you need help sorting out commercial property disputes, especially if you are in North Carolina, you should click here.

{ 10 comments } is about the specific home improvements you and your neighbors do to increase your specific property values. But a good place to start is to look at the general consensus on what are the most valuable home improvements.  So, you haven’t looked into it yet, you might want to read this two page article by Bob Villa: The Most Valuable Home Improvements.  But be sure to notice how often Bob points out the need to look at what other people are doing in your own neighborhood:

“The best way to determine the level of home improvement required for a successful sale is to visit the homes around you and study comparables.  Then follow their lead.”

Bob’s right, and that is a big part of what is all about.

Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.