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Spring, Spring, Spring!

February 24, 2012

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I care not one whit that the weather prophets are forecasting snow. Not a bit. We’ve had so little snow this season that the threat of even a few inches is nothing. Usually, snow forecasts in late February incite collective groans from the Northeastern population: Ugh, not more snow! But this year, it’s been a glorious winter! No late snow storm can stop me from breaking out the gardening tools and dreaming about weeding throughout the long, hot summer, no sirreeee!!!

I took a little jaunt outside (temps were up to 40 degrees today, perfect weather!). Here’s a peek of Upstate New York before spring really hits. Of course, we usually have 12-18 inches of snow on the ground normally, so….

This is my garden, currently. Pitiful, yes. I will have to take a few days off to clear it out and (have my husband) till the plots.

Winetrgarden

My spruce tree. The first year we moved here, I planted 6 of these in the backyard. This is the only survivor. My neighbors then were quite angry that I had purchased the land. It had been vacant for quite some time and they were used to using the land for their treasure-hunting excursions, driving their motorcycles around the house, and allowing neighborhood kids to smoke pot back there. One neighbor let her grandsons “play” with some saws in my yard, and they promptly hacked my little tress to bits. By the time I shooed them away, there was only this tree left in their wake. Good heavens, its been quite the trial trying to cultivate the property!

sprucetreetall

My willow tree. The deer are against me, too, lol. They nearly stripped the tree of bark before I covered it with wrap. I hope the tree survives. I was coddling it in my front garden beds for years before I plugged it in the back. *sigh*

WillowSick

Ah, wildlife.

RabittDoo

This is the burn pile that awaits me come good weather (aka, rainy free). It’s leftover stuff from the renovation. To save money, we burned the lathe instead of dumping it in the landfill. It makes for some very nice bonfires during the summer!

burn pile

My rebellious English ivy. The durn stuff won’t grow up the arbor no matter how much I coax it! It insists on growing across the garden path. Well, I’ve got a surprise coming this spring!

ivypath

My apple tree. It survive the neighbors AND the deer. I love this tenacious old thing. I can prune it, now, too. I hope it gives fruit this year.

appletreeprune

Finally, the swamp that’s out back. The deer live up the hill in the forest. They come down for tasty treats from my yard twice a day. 😐

Swamp

So you can see I have my work already assigned this spring! I’m actually looking forward to cleaning up the mess. I neglected the gardens during the renovation summer, and then the following summer I had to work full-time. Soon it will all be green again!

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Plaster vs. Drywall

November 24, 2011

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If you live in a home built before World War II, chances are you have plaster and lathe walls. Plaster goes way back– the the pyramids, even — ever since man got the idea to use crushed limestone or mud and slop it to the walls. Nobody knows for sure when the first plaster and lathe walls were built, but it must have been thousands of years ago.

KitchenGutted

Plaster removed from the kitchen. The lathe is next!

Among the “old house” social circles, keeping your plaster walls has a bit of snob appeal. Old house folks are always saying that plaster is better than drywall because… well, just because. Plaster looks better, they say. It insulates better, it’s more historic, it improves the value of your old house, it’s a “higher end” wall covering, it’s soundproofs!

Every single house I have EVER lived in except for ONE has had plaster walls. And you know what? I think plaster STINKS. I care a lot about history, too. When I bought this house, I spent a few years researching the original builder’s genealogy and local history. But in my experience, I think there’s something good to be said for modern technology. I LOVE DRYWALL.

Drywall is so easy to install. SO EASY. It’s not messy. When you need to patch it, just swipe some joint compound. I love drywall.

I offer my own two cents on the Plaster vs. Drywall debate:

Snob Factor: Plaster insulates and soundproofs better.
Reality Check: Says Who?
I’d sure like to know if there have been any scientific studies on this theory, because I have not found this to be true at all. Old homes with plaster walls are usually uninsulated. Please tell me how uninsulated plaster walls insulate and soundproof better than drywall walls (which are almost always insulated). One of the main reasons I gutted the plaster walls was to insulate (and re-wire the electrical system). My home has never been cozier– and the difference is striking. Of course, the real difference lies in the insulation– insulated drywall obviously insulates and soundproofs better than non-insulated plaster walls. But that’s the WHOLE reason for drywall- to insulate! Today, most building codes require that house walls for new construction are insulated. So in the typical situation common in most homes — non-insulated plaster walls versus insulated drywall walls — drywall wins every time.

When I had plaster walls, I could put food requiring refrigeration on my kitchen floor (such as fresh fruit, like apples). The drafts and cold temperatures kept the fruit fresh. If I do that now, after renovating, the apples get mushy in a couple of days. The difference is just staggering. Sounds from the street do not permeate my living rooms AT ALL like they used to. Upstairs, where I have not renovated and where plaster remains, it’s freezing cold. And a screaming little kid on the street or the rumbling 18-wheeler trucks sound like they are in the room with us. I don’t see how plaster is better in this respect.

Snob Factor: Plaster is more valuable.
Reality Check: Valuable to whom?
If plaster is truly more valuable, this may be the ONLY thing going for plaster, in my estimation. But how much more value does it add to the home? In a historic district, plaster walls may be worth keeping. But I live in a middle-income small town (like 95% of Americans) and plaster walls are a definite deterrent to home buyers. Here in real life where we want to hang our photos or the kids run around the house, plaster is a pain. It cracks, it breaks, it’s messy, it’s dirty. One thing to note about plaster walls– the home insurance policy changes. Some insurance policies have the “complete replacement” or “as is” rider, so you pay through the nose for a higher replacement cost. This means that, in the event of a fire and the house needed to be rebuilt, the estimated replacement cost includes full replacement of the plaster walls and ceilings, even though NOBODY (but wealthy people) rebuilds their house with plaster anymore. It’s so expensive and time-consuming to do so. But we were paying for that in the “as is” policy.

Snob Factor: Plaster is a high-quality wall-covering.
Reality Check: Plaster gets in the way. It inhibits the installation of electric wiring and insulation.
Ever try to fishwire electrical wiring behind plaster walls? One or two times isn’t bad, but try to update an entire house and it’s agonizing. The main reason I ripped out the plaster was for electrical. The whole reason WHY my electrical system was totally obsolete and dangerous (we were still running on knob-and-tube) is because of plaster– the previous owners didn’t want to gut the walls but they also couldn’t fishwire the new electric, either. So they left it, decade after decade, for somebody else to do it (namely, ME). The wiring had deteriorated to such a degree that if you moved the old wires, the copper wiring inside cracked and split into pieces. This kind of wiring prevented me from insulating the walls, too. Knob-and-tube overheats when covered by insulation, and therefore it is against building codes to add insulation! Removing the plaster was a win-win job.

Snob Factor: Plaster is timeless.
Reality Check: Plaster is outdated.
If you have lived in an old home, you know that nothing is ever straight– the walls and ceilings are so crooked. Some folks blame it on old house settling, but I wonder if plaster is to blame. There was really no need to perfectly square a room before drywall. Studs were willy-nilly because lathe was tacked on to them. Lathe was willy-nilly because plaster covered everything. Does the ceiling of the room dip too low? Add more plaster and even it out! Of course, back in the “olden days,” framing wood was rough sawn and not planed like it is today. So plaster was the medium that covered the underlying faults.

Plaster Removal UGH

Removing plaster is a messy job, but it's worth it for the new electric and insulation.

Snob Factor: Plaster is historically accurate.
Reality Check: Save the history for the museums, I have to live in this place (and pay the energy bills).
As I’ve said, plaster walls are fine for historic landmarks or super wealthy homeowners. For the average homeowner, drywall is better. It’s less messy, easier to install and repair, allows for the installation of insulation, electric, and plumbing in an old home, and more. As a renovator, I visit a lot of forums and “how to” communities. When someone pops in to ask if they should replace their plaster with drywall, the snobs take over. A group mentality forms, and everyone nods their heads and all agree that it is “not cool” to remove plaster for drywall. I’ve considered both sides — I’ve been on both sides — and I come to the conclusion that the snob factor is not a good enough reason to keep my plaster walls.

Now, make no mistake- installing drywall in an old home is no task for the faint-hearted. It’s actually the WORST job in home renovation, I think. I’d rather wire my circuit breaker panel or wrestle with fiberglass batts than install drywall. It’s SO HARD, making all these wonky cuts and trying to stuff them into unsquared corners and ceilings. And then there’s the spackling– gah! I hate spackling!

DRcornerceiling1

I'm still pinching myself that this difficult job is done. Whew!

But given the choice of the two? Drywall wins. My home is neater, is insulated, has less dust, and no longer smells like that sour plaster-y smell.

Drywall ROCKS. Ha! 😀

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Livvy and Light Bulbs

July 25, 2011

6 Comments

LivvyTYping

She helps me tyyypep. She thnksshe”s being helpfull,

Gonna be away from the desk for a day or two. I’m going to learn all about light bulb technology, sponsored by The Home Depot! I am very curious about new products available for our lighting, since New York State is forcing us to use CFL bulbs next year. I’ll have a lot to share when I return. Stay cool!

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Remodeling Projects that Improve House Value

April 4, 2011

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When I first bought my old 1855 home, I wanted to retain as much of the original character and materials as possible. I read up on remodeling articles by the National Register of Historical Places. I looked for grants or other ways to fund the job. But it was all to no avail. For one, my home, while old, is not terribly historic. It’s a middle-income home in a middle-income town amongst low- to middle-income families. Two, it would have been prohibitively expensive to remodel my home according to the NRHP. They follow stringent regulations, too stringent for this place (not unless the 1920s knob and tube electric and 1960s linoleum flooring would be worth salvaging. NOT). Anyway, I gave up on my dream of owning a pure, historically accurate home and focused my attentions on making the blasted place livable.

Through the years, I’d done extensive reading on good remodeling projects, and poor ones. If you have a clunky old house like mine, you may appreciate a few tips I’ve gathered over the years. Here are the nest remodeling projects you can do to improve the value of your home (in my humble opinion).

Replace the Electrical System
This is the most important advice I can give. I know! I know! It’s a hard job especially if you have plaster walls. But I am haunted by one story I read in my local newspaper, years ago. A young man had purchased a beautiful, grand old painted lady in a nearby city. He gutted the rooms, insulated, restored, lovingly painted the gingerbread molding, etc. A month later, the house burned to the ground, a total loss. The reason? The guy hadn’t replaced the electrical. It was the old 1920’s electrical, and the homeowner did not realize what a fire hazard it was. Oh, my heart cried for the guy, it did.

Crazy Old Wiring

This disaster was behind the dining room switch plate. Yikes.

 

Electrical is not easy to replace… well, the actual wiring is not hard at all. I did all mine (although a wonderful young man from my church helped me with the kitchen and baseboard heaters). The hardest part of electrical — I think– is getting the wiring throughout the house. You have to hack, drill, gut, slam, tack…. it’s tedious, it’s arduous… I hated that part. But I sleep better now, knowing that all my electric is updated to 2011 standards.

Replace the Old Heating System
When we bought our house, that was the first thing we had to do (and replace the old 1940’s fuse box electrical with a circuit breaker system!). The old 1970’s furnace was horribly inefficient (only 80%) and was killing the old chimney. For an old home, I STRONGLY recommend that you vent your gas furnace directly outside (direct vent) and not through an old chimney. Old chimneys were not built to accommodate the intense by-products of combustible gas furnaces (water vapor and carbon monoxide). The heated, moist air going up the chimney combined with the cold, dry air outside will cause your chimney to deteriorate very rapidly. Get a direct vent system and pipe the exhaust and moisture outside.

Replace the Windows, BUT….
…retain the style of the home.

Maybe you’ve seen them– the old homes that have been SO OBVIOUSLY remodeled. The beautiful 62-inch Victorian panes have been replaced with clunky aluminum panes half the size. It looks like the house has a patched eye or something. Terrible.

Old houses have an elegance to them. Builders constructed them on basic mathematical, architectural principles. My old Greek Revival is done in sets of 3’s, 4’s and 7’s.

House Front

The house obviously needs new windows....

Can you see the symmetry of the windows with the spaces between the windows? To meddle with the symmetry will ruin the aesthetic appeal of the home. Someone once suggested I remove the two bottom windows and insert a big picture window in their place. Oh my gosh, that would be awful! If I had a Brady Bunch 1970’s home, that might do, but in 1855 they did not have super-large picture windows. It would ruin the appearance. Even the existing windows look out of place. Those windows were installed in 1910, about 65 years AFTER the house was built. The original windows, which had smaller panes, were a much better fit for the Greek Revival style. Two of the 1855 windows are actually still installed in the back of the house! If I can afford it, I’m going to get those 9/6 windows (9 panes on the top sash, 6 panes on the bottom sash) when I replace my windows.

Garage Window

An original 1855 window behind a 1990 storm window addition.

 

One note: don’t worry about altering the window style for room additions or the kitchen. I added a huge 5-foot window to my kitchen (in the back) but decorated the room to match the rest of the house. You can fudge a little, but keep the front of the house compatible with the overall architectural style.

Insulate the Walls
Like the electrical system, this job is not easy. But old homes are rarely insulated. Kiss your energy bills goodbye, folks. Old homes BREATHE outdoor air. It’s how they were built– to ventilate. Centuries before power companies, this was not a problem. But it’s a costly problem now. Besides saving some money, insulation helps you maintain a much more comfortable environment. Only half of my house is insulated (the downstairs). Even doing only half the house has made a world of difference. I don’t need heaters in the 350-square foot kitchen, because it’s so well insulated.

kitcheninsulation2

I gutted the walls to add fiberglass insulation. You may or may not be able to do that. But at least have the insulation blown in. ANYTHING is better than just having cold space in the wall cavities.

Plant Gardens
OK, well, I can’t PROVE that adding gardens to the lot will improve your home’s value, in dollar signs. But it will sure improve everything else.

When I was househunting, I was totally smitten with properties that had nice gardens. I was even willing to compromise on small closets or no garage if there were perennial gardens. Gardens add a lot of value to the property– maybe not in dollars, but it tells everyone that you cherish your land and take care of it.

To Secret Garden 3

Anyway, I hope my travails and experiences have helped you in some small way. There’s an awful lot to do when you have an old home. These projects will give you great comfort and make your home instantly safer and more valuable.

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My Before, During, and After Story, Part 1

November 14, 2010

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Our new kitchen an dining room is, of course, a work in progress. But I can proudly (and with great relief) say that most of the work is completed. WHAT a summer it has been.

In case you’re new here, we renovated the kitchen and dining room of my 1855 house. BY OURSELVES. No professional help. I did spend long hours reading books and manuals, though, so I did self-educate myself on methods and regulations.

But we did it! And I still marvel at our accomplishment. We not only gutted and restored these two rooms, but we redid the entire electrical service, redid the water supply system and added some drains, and are in the process of replacing the central heating system.

It was supposed to be me, my husband, and the kids who did this. But my husband (a substitute postal carrier), who’d been out of work for months before our renovation, was suddenly called into work almost EVERY DAY. The kids and I were on our own. Thank the Lord, some of the guys from our church came over every Sunday to help us out with the really tough stuff, like wiring the baseboard heaters, installing furring strips on the ceiling, and hanging some sheetrock. And later, my husband did get some time to install a totally new water supply system with PEX piping.

I’m exhausted, remembering it all. I just can’t believe we did it.

Here are some BEFORE photos. It pains me to look at them!

Ugliest Kitchen1

After our living room renovation in 2007, when I saw the condition of the old 1920s knob and tube wiring, I disconnected it for fear of fire. We'd lived for three years without electricity in half the house. The kitchen had only a small light and two small outlets. It was a miserable room to be in.

Ugliest Kitchen2

The colorful layers are the remnants of previous owners' handiwork. This room and the bathroom were the only rooms remodeled at some point in the house's 155-year history. The rest of the house was relatively untouched since 1855.

Kitchen Day 1

Day 1 of the Renovation.

Kitchen Before LR Wall

I'd been waiting 13 years for this moment.

These were taken once we started the demolition. Our trusty demolition crew was me and one of my daughters. The other daughter and the older son sometimes joined in on the fun.

KitchenGutted

This was one of the "clean" renovation days.

Kitchen Gutted

I'd removed two small walls from this kitchen, opening up a space 12 x 23 feet. The only limit to what we could do was my own creativity. And the bulky stairwell that protrudes out from the wall....

OldArtDecoWallpaper

We found a portion of the wall (behind the chimney no less, which was added sometime after 1855) plastered with old Art Deco wallpaper. Some of it was singed from the chimney heat.

Removing Window3

I gleefully removed the lousy 1970s aluminum window, and made plans to enlarge the hole-- the new window would be twice as large.

I built this monster of a window frame. This side of the wall was only loosely supported; the support beam had been hacked away by previous owners to make room for that lousy aluminum window. I freaked when I saw second-storey studs just hanging within the wall cavity! So this new frame is a monster– it not only houses the new window, but supports this entire side of the house.

Window Rough Framing

Notice that we moved the old sink to the center of the room. We did this to allow us access to the wall, and to provide us with a kitchen sink throughout the renovation. It was also a great opportunity for my husband to learn plumbing.

Window Open

I spent a lot of energy and time with the new window frame. I wanted it to be PERFECT. If there was ANYTHING that was going to be perfect, it would be this. No one would ever see the frame (except you guys, lol), but I would know it was there, insidethe wall, sitting PERFECTLY.

The new window plopped in the cavity. I didn’t even have to shim it, because the frame was so perfectly level and measured so accurately that no amending was necessary. What a glorious moment for us!

Window Int

Livvy loves her new window.

There’s so much more to tell– come back for Part 2. 🙂

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New Kitchen: The Jewel of the Room

September 29, 2010

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When designing a room, every room must have a “focal point.” This is where the eye is usually drawn, and from where the other design elements in the room are based. I wanted the focal point in my new kitchen to be the gloriously oversized window. The previous kitchen had one small aluminum window that I could never open (it was warped shut). The glass had large cracks in it, and the kitchen was dismally dark and cramped. It was miserable and demoralizing to cook in that kitchen. Thus, my new kitchen would be BIG, bigger in every way! I chose the window to be the spring board from which everything else revolved.

Window2

The window is 60 inches by 48 inches. I retained the Greek Revival triangular pediments and fluted trim from the rest of the house, but while the rest of the trim work in the kitchen (and elsewhere) is painted white, I decided to stain the woodwork around the window a red chestnut color. This really makes the window look very majestic. A pendant light and a natural-color cellular blind exudes incredible warmth and ambiance. It is actually pleasant to be at the kitchen sink, now. The room is so warm and cozy with the browns and reds and wood materials!

Window1

I used basic stock pieces for the window trim. The pediment is basic pine, with red oak corner bead at the top. The pediments are, generally, not difficult to make, but this was a very wide piece of pine. I had to measure very, very carefully because I would have but ONE chance to get it right. The fluted trim is pine wood (I installed MDF fluted trim elsewhere), and the rosettes are simple stock pieces I picked up at the Big Box store. The window sill was most difficult of all. I had never made a sill before, and the wall is very uneven here– one side is 1/2-inch wider than the other! I bought a long piece of yellow pine, bull-nose stair tread, and measure very carefully again. You’d never know that one side of the sill juts out 1/2-inch further than the other. When you live in an old home, there is no such thing as “square.” You must rely on optical illusions for a lot of stuff. 😀

Windowrosette

The inner boards (jambs) for the window are poplar. So I have three varieties of wood for this window. Yeah, it’s a little unconventional, but EVERYTHING is unconventional here. A little quarter round moulding hides the waviness of the framing and the gaps of the walls. So while I am definitely NO carpenter, I managed to patch together a bunch of wood of different types and measurements to produce a window that looks rather pretty.

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Great Homeowners Resource

August 2, 2010

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Here’s a brand new website that I have discovered: Billy.com. This looks like a terrific website! It’s a resource website filled with all sorts of delicious stuff: online coupons, loads of articles, tips, and more. I liked the articles about how to save money on heating and cooling bills, save money on phone bills (yikes, phone service has become so expensive), and stuff about saving money when grocery shopping. It has excellent resources and tips about moving companies, too, as well as helpful advice regarding long distance moving services. Billy.com has a good list of companies, services, and moving guides.

It’s touted as “The Web’s Smartest Savings Club,” and so far as I can see, it lives up to its name. It also sports Billy, a goofy-looking cartoon character. He yawns if you take too long reading a page, lol. You can also tinker with some financial calculators: Mortgage and Loan Calculator, Pay Scale Salary Calculator, and etc. Looks good. The website seems relatively new, so I expect more articles to be rolling in. What’s there is very comprehensive and helpful.

If you are *into* saving money, budgeting, or looking for ways to be wiser and more efficient with your resources, check out Billy.com. At least go say “Hi” to him. He waves at you when you hang your mouse cursor over him. LOL.

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Hashing Through Insurance Policies

June 25, 2010

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It’s a good thing The Hubs is familiar with all the technical lingo for insurance policies. As I’ve stated before, part of the reason that we are renovating is because our home insurance policy, at over a decade old, is set to review and revise. At the time, our kitchen was falling down over our heads, half the house had no electricity, and the plumbing drains were iffy. I decided I would MUCH rather spend money renovating the house than spend money on paying a higher insurance premium. It was difficult enough to get the house insurance 10 years ago. We are in a mixed residential/business area, and therefore most insurance companies were hesitant to insure the house (we are very close to a parking lot and are surrounded by businesses). Of course, we could always get business insurance quotes, right? We’re not a business, exactly…. well, I do work at home, on my business.
Anyway, insurance costs are *kinda* hard to control these days. I think it’s very unfair that I have to pay for knuckleheads who live in flood-prone, hurricane-prone, earthquake-prone areas… why do I have to pay for those decisions?!

Anyway, it sure pays to shop around for insurance. All insurance is expensive, especially in New York, but many mortgage lenders and banks will not fund your home loan or home renovation loan without it. And in my opinion, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 😀 Thanks to the dudes at NetQuote.com for giving me the opportunity to briefly discuss the importance of insurance!

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Dreamhomes for Sale

January 21, 2009

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Am I an eternal optimist? I keep entering sweepstakes to win my dreamhome.

By the way, my definition of dreamhome: electricity in all the rooms; plumbing that WORKS; no leaks; new kitchen; nice floors. I guess I’m pretty easy to please, huh? 😀

I know the odds of me winning those sweepstakes is next to nil. I’m not counting on winning them, though. I’m just hoping! 😀 But I know I can’t wait forever to get one. I’m working on the house I have. I’ll be happy to have a new kitchen! But if you’re making plans for your dreamhome, check out one of the top-notch crafters of dreamhomes in Louisiana: Schumacher Homes. I’ll bet they are seeing a lot of business, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina! Schumacher builds homes all across the United States, not just Louisiana. Look them up when you are ready to build. Then YOU can stop entering those sweepstakes and give me more of a chance to win! 😉

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Make Your Lamp a Touch Lamp

October 26, 2008

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I found the absolutely COOLEST thing at the home improvement store last week! I am still congratulating myself for finding it.

I was looking for a lamp to replace the bad one in our bathroom (YES we have a floor lamp in our bathroom, because we still have no electricity for the room yet! I’m getting to it…). The lamp switch was going bad, and I wanted a touch lamp to replace it. I figured a touch lamp would make it easier than fumbling around for the switch in the dark. I went to several stores, and just couldn’t make myself spend $35 for a touch lamp that I just wanted as a “kick around/temporary” thing in the bathroom. I asked the salesman if he had any other touch lamps, and he showed me an aisle where— lo and behold– there were all these little gadgets and attachments that you could connect your existing lamp to and make the lamp a touch lamp! Wowee!

Touch Lamp pkg

The package is empty because I was so eager to try out the gadget that I didn’t take time to shoot the photo first. Here’s a better photo of the actual gadget.

TouchLampExtension

This particular gadget plugs in to your receptacle, and you plug your lamp cord into it. The gold-colored disk has a lead line (ten feet long). You can place the disk anywhere. I put the disk near the entrance to my bathroom. Ignore the staples. And yes, that is duct tape holding the disk to the wall. I was in a hurry, ok?

Touch Lamp button

You leave the floor lamp switch in the “on” position, and touch the gold disk to turn the lamp on. The disk has three settings- dim, halfway lit, and full lit. The neat thing is that you don’t need a 3-way bulb– you can use a regular 60-watt and this thing will work with those settings. To activate each setting, you just touch that gold disk each time! I just love it!

I don’t think this gadget works with the newer CFL bulbs; I think it only takes the incandescent. So the downside is that I will soon be unable to use this lamp– New York State is making it illegal to buy incandescent bulbs soon (dumb, I know). So either I get on the ball and start wiring this room for electricity, or I stock up on incandescent bulbs. Or, I can smuggle them in from Pennsylvania or New Jersey, maybe…

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