Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Family-Friendly Design: Home Features I Love As A New Mom

Every house needs a tub...with Puj treads.
When it was time to decide whether to install carpet in our new house, our dog Astro made the decision for us. A very practical friend and mother of two had advised me to skip the carpet. You'll thank me when your kid vomits all over the floor at 3am, she said. Our baby was not due for another several months, so we had no idea what we were in for, and I was not quite ready to give up on my dream of cushy wall-to-wall carpeting. Then one day while discussing the matter with my husband, our cavapoo Astro scooted by, dragging his derriere across the family room area rug. We looked at each other horrified and the decision was instantly made. Here's a visual for those of you who don't know what I mean:


These days every time I wipe spit up off our new home's hardwood floors, I thank my friend and Astro's itchy butt.

Since moving in and having our baby, there are many features I'm grateful for. Here is a list of kid-tested, mother-approved features I recommend when buying or designing a home:

1. One bathtub (and only one)
Most real estate agents will tell you every family home needs a tuband they're right but you only need one. Now that our baby can sit up on his own, he loves to splish splash in the tub. He's a scooter like Astro, so we added some extra cute bath treads from Puj to prevent slipping.

We installed the Kohler Archer tub because it has a low, 19 inch step-over height, (which is important when you're bending over bathing a baby), but has a high slotted drain which allows the same water depth as a standard 21 inch bath (important when mom needs a deep soak). This meets all of our bathing needs, so I'm glad we opted to not put a tub in the master. Instead we used the space for his and her closets and splurged on a deluxe shower setup.

Sidenote: For family bathrooms, I recommend NOT installing a shower door over the tub. Doors simply get in the way when you're bathing a baby. We left ours open and will hang a shower curtain when needed. Also, be sure to install a handheld shower head that reaches down to the tub so it's easy to spray down a little one.
Super-size your shower bench and make sure you have a handheld shower head.
2.  Oversized shower with bench (bonus points for Mr Steam)
The first month with our new baby, I tried bathing him in the various sinks throughout our house to find one that was just right. In the end my favorite place turned out to be on the bench in our shower. For parents who don't have time to shower, I have one word: Co-showering.

With a foldable Flexibath baby tub and a Primo infant seat inside it, baby O sits and soaks while I shower. (By the way, Puj also makes a great flexible bath perfect for sinks). Turning on the Mr Steam shower feature keeps everyone warm and relaxed. Now that he's too squirmy to sit in one place he mostly bathes in the regular bathtub but I still use the steam feature when I showerit's heavenly. Other parents have told me the steam shower is also handy for helping clear head colds.

Baby strategically positioned towards sink in case of open air accidents.
3. Sinks with long countertops
According to BabyConnect (an awesome app for tracking all things baby), we've changed over 2000 diapers in the last 8 months. This is made infinitely easier by the fact that we have long counters next to our sinks that serve as perfect diaper changing stations. Having a sink built into your diaper station is especially handy if you are the unfortunate victim of an open air accident. Speaking of diapers, we use cloth diapers and love the Tiny Tots diaper service. They are reasonably priced and will deliver fresh diapers every week while hauling off the dirty ones.

The NextStep potty seat because toilets are easier to use when you're not worried about falling in.
4. NextStep seat (for baby), Toto Bidet (for mom)
In an effort to reduce the diaper count, we recently started potty training thanks to advice from super mom, Vicky Nguyen. Vicky recommended elimination communication and the nifty Bemis NextStep Potty Seat that you install over your regular toilet. It's a normal adult seat with a kid-sized seat built into the lid that you can put down as needed. The kid seat is hinged and magnetically attaches to the lid so that it's secure when down and inconspicuous when up. My little poo champ loves using the toilet almost as much as I love not having to clean a poopy diaper.

We installed a bidet in our master bathroom on the advice of friends who swear by them. I was pretty happy with our TOTO Washlet before becoming a mom but completely in love with it afterwards. Let's just say that childbirth does freaky things to your body and bidets are way better than Tuck's pads.

Laying down the radiant heat tubes.
4. Radiant heat + the Nest Thermostat
Radiant heat is our number one favorite home feature for the whole family. Now that we've experienced it, we will never be able to go back to forced air. We love it because it's comfortable, quiet, more energy efficient, and most of all--healthier. Indoor air pollution is much more hazardous to your health (and extra, extra bad for little ones) than outdoor pollution. Radiant heat creates a cleaner environment because it doesn't blow dust, allergens and other pollutants around your house.

Another major benefit of radiant heat is the ability to zone your house so that you only heat the rooms that you need. Zones can be set at different temperatures at different times. This is great because we can crank up the heat in the baby's room, giving him his own tropical microclimate, but keep our bedroom cool at night, the way we like it. We also installed an awesome Nest Thermostat in the nursery so that we can check and control the temperature from anywhere we are via an app on our phones.

5. Whole House Fan & ceiling fans
While radiant heat keeps the baby cozy in the winter, the whole house fan keeps him cool in the summer.  Since radiant heat doesn't require ducts, we decided it also wasn't worth putting ductwork in just for air conditioning. Given Palo Alto's mostly mild weather, we figured we could deal without A/C and instead installed an Airscape whole house fan. We also installed ceiling fans in all the bedrooms to create a nice refreshing breeze.

Whole house fans provide natural cooling by pulling hot air out of the house and drawing cool air in. They use a 10-15% the power drawn by A/C and are much more effective than just opening your windows because not do they cool your rooms but they also force the hot air that builds up in your attic out through the roof vents. On hot days we turn the fan on in the morning and evening (when the outdoor temperature is lower than indoors) and it cools the house pretty quickly. For more detail, here's a great write up on how whole house fans work.

The whole house fan is also a great way to improve indoor air quality by bringing in fresh air and pushing out stale air and pollutants. (By the way, plants are also good to have around too. Here's a list of 15 Houseplants for Improving Indoor Air Quality. As a busy mom, I love Mother-In-Law's Tongue...it's the most low maintenance plant ever and virtually unkillable.)

Insulation between the floors and interior walls is one of those "invisible upgrades" that matter.
5. Insulation & sound proofing
As a new parent, everyone tells you to sleep when your baby sleeps, but frankly, I'd rather stay up watching Game of Thrones and Madmen. Our baby's a super light sleeper and also has the lungs of a long distance runner, so I'm thankful for the additional soundproofing measures built into our house. It's not a standard practice to put insulation between floors and in interior walls but I highly recommend it to keep the noise levels down in family homes. For our bedroom walls we also used Quietrock, a special kind of drywall that's supposed to reduce sound transfer by up to 8x, which has helped make sleep training a bit more tolerable.

Kid magnet! The latest (and greatest) James Witt home has a book nook tucked into the hallway.
6. Kid-friendly spaces
Think of it as the water cooler for kids...a space that draws kids in. It's a cozy place for kids to read, do homework, or just daydream. We put a built-in window seat in our home. You don't necessarily need a dedicated spot for kids. A home with an open floor plan makes it easy to carve out spaces as needed. We love our great room because there's enough space to incorporate a baby swing, Jumperoo, Lego Land corner, or whatever the next obsession will be. I'll take that over a formal dining room any day.

7. Ample storage
Kids...So. Much. Stuff. Attic, basement, mudroom, under the stairs closet, garage mezzanine...you can never have too much storage space. Enough said.

Stairlights are handy if your hands are full with a sleeping kid or if you're an old dog who can't see so well.
8. Stair lights, night lights & carpet runner
Everyone in the family benefits from our stair lights. They're on a basic timer and come on at night so there's no need flip a switch when going up and down the stairs. The ones we installed are dimmable LEDs and use virtually no power. If you don't want to wire your stairs for lights but have outlets near the landings you can use plug-in night lights instead. We have these motion sensor LED night lights in our bedrooms and bathrooms. They provide enough soft light to navigate around and do a diaper change in the middle of the night without being so bright that they fully wake you up.

Another good safety feature for the stairs is a carpet runner. When we first moved in, our older dog Cisco kept slipping down the stairs. While we love the hardwood floors, we love our babies even more, so we got Stanford Carpets to install a simple wool carpet stair runner. By the way, carpets are terrible for indoor air quality but if you have to have it, it's recommended that you get one made out of natural fibers. It's definitely a lot more comfortable treading down carpeted stairs and it's easy enough to replace a runner when needed.

I could go on and on about other kid-friendly home features, but those are my top picks for now.  If you're interested in the ultimate feature for fur babies, check out my post on making a dog-water fountain.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Smoke Detectors, Nuisance Alarms, Fire Safety & Why I'd Still Buy a Nest Protect

The Nest Protect...now the hottest must-have toy that you won't be able to buy.

Just my luck, on the day I was going post my review of the Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide detector, the company yanks them off the shelf. Apparently their gimmicky wave feature doesn't work right so they're halting new sales and deactivating the feature on already installed units through a wifi software update. Safety is so annoying. [Update, July 2014: Woohoo! They're back on the shelves and $20 cheaper! You can order one with free shipping from Amazon: Nest Protect.  If you purchased the Nest Protect for $129, you are eligible for a credit of $33 per device. You can get your Nest Protect rebate here].

I decided to research the Nest Protect because I wasn't satisfied with the darling reviews from the technorati. Instead of examining practical safety aspects (i.e. whether it uses an ionization or photoelectric sensor), they declared it a thing of beauty and fawned over superfluous extras like the night light (David Pogue's favorite feature). C'mon night lights are a dime a dozen and if my goal was beauty, I'd hang an Arctic Pear chandelier or the Boffi Air ceiling fan, not a hipster smoke detector that looks like a giant Square credit card dongle.

For the record, I was going to recommend including the Nest Protect as part of your home's protection system but advise against replacing all your detectors with them (we put one on each floor). I found the wave feature to be useless and unnecessary, so no big deal that it's not enabled on our detectors anymore. In my opinion Nest Protect's killer app is it's ability to communicate — it tells you when the battery is low, if the alarm isn't working, and if the smoke detector is going off while you're out to dinner and the baby is home with the sitter. This kind of peace of mind is priceless.

It's a shame that the company advertised the Wave feature so heavily that now they have to spend months finding a way to fix it. I still think they have a great product (which currently sells on eBay for an even larger premium). Their main tagline is "Safety doesn't have to be annoying." Nest, you had me at Safety. You had me at Safety.

To me, the biggest tragedy of the Nest Protect marketing campaign is that they had opportunity to educate consumers about how smoke detectors work and how to be safe without sacrificing your sanity. It has nothing to do with being able to silence your detector with a wave. You don't have to swing a towel at the Nest Protect because it uses a photoelectric sensor, which makes it less prone to nuisance activations and much safer.

The first question you should ask when evaluating a smoke detector is: "What kind of sensor does it use? Here's why:

Most nuisance alarms are caused by Ionization sensors
There are two types of smoke detectors—Ionization and Photoelectric. About 90% of homes have ionization sensor detectors, they are cheaper and better at sensing hot flaming/fast-moving fires (i.e. cooking fires and fires fueled by paper or flammable liquids). About 5% of homes have photoelectric sensor alarms, which are faster at detecting slow smoldering fires (i.e. smoking, electrical or heater-related fires). If you need help determining what type of detector you have, this post has a great explanation: IONIZATION VS. PHOTOELECTRIC SMOKE ALARMS.

The trouble with ionization sensors is they often get triggered when you cook, burn toast or shower. After one or two unwanted alarms, they invariably wind up in the junk drawer, making them the least safe kind of detector that you can have. According to the National Fire Protection Agency nearly two-thirds of US home fire deaths happen in homes without a working smoke alarm—usually because the batteries are dead or they've been deliberately disabled. One Alaskan Public Housing study found that ionization detectors have 8 times more false alarms and 19% of them are disabled within 6 months of installation. 

Combo/Dual Sensor alarms are also prone to nuisance tripping
Because you cannot predict the type of fire you may have, fire officials recommend that you have both ionization and photoelectric technologies in your home. Combination or "dual sensor" alarms which include both ionization and photoelectric technologies in one device are often touted as the best way to protect your home, however they get mixed reviews from people in the field.

Electricians, home inspectors, as well as our city's fire marshal told me that combo alarms (which were required by the California Fire Code when we built our house) are prone to nuisance alarms. Some say they're too sensitive to moving air or dust. Others say they have a high failure rate because they are cheaply manufactured in order to be cost competitive with single unit devices. Some experts also argue that they are unreliable because there's no industry or UL standard for dual/multi sensor alarms. Regardless of the reason, the experts I spoke to all recommended replacing dual unit devices with single detector ones if they are causing nuisance alarms. So far all of our false alarms have been caused by the Kidde combo photoelectric/carbon monoxide alarms, so we can't blame an ionization sensor.

Before going Office Space on your detectors, try these tips...
Tips for preventing nuisance alarms

1. Switch to a photoelectric only smoke detector. Photoelectric alarms are much less susceptible to nuisance alarms. If your main concern is preventing false alarms, there's no need wait for the Nest Protect to come back on the market, there are plenty of other capable photoelectric smoke detectors.

2. Locate smoke detectors at least 20 feet from the sources of combustion particles (cooking appliances, furnace, water heater, space heater). Avoid placing alarms in air streams near kitchens since currents can draw cooking smoke into a detector's sensing chamber. Within 20 feet of a kitchen, use photoelectric only alarms. 

3. Avoid placing detectors in damp, humid or steamy areas e.g. directly near bathrooms with showers. Make sure smoke detectors are mounted on a surface that does not get cold in winter. Warm balmy nights without good air circulation can also trigger them. Avoid exterior walls if possible and do not mount on cathedral ceilings if there is a wall location available.

4. Do not place a smoke detector in garages, furnace rooms, crawl spaces and poorly ventilated areas.

5. Use a vacuum cleaner to clean out dust every three months. Avoid insect infested areas, bugs can trigger smoke detectors.

6. Keep detectors at lease 12 inches away from fluorescent lights since electrical "noise" can interfere with the sensor.

7. Install alarms with a hush feature that can be temporarily silenced. And learn how to use it! If an alarm is sounding too frequently, the problem could be solved by moving it. If all else fails, replace the alarm, you may have gotten a lemon.

Note: If your smoke detectors are interconnected, there should be a flashing red light on the device that was  originally triggered. If you can't identify which unit is setting off the alarms, you may need to disconnect them from each other and wait for the next false alarm to troubleshoot.

Why every home should have a photoelectric smoke detector
Nuisance alarms are not the only reason to install a photoelectric alarm. The number one reason to have a photoelectric smoke detector is safety. Smoldering fires, like those started from overloaded power strips, can fill a home with toxic gases for minutes, or even hours before there are enough flames to trigger an ionization alarm. Friends of mine were recently in trapped by a fire on the 20th floor of their apartment building when a smoldering fire broke out two doors down. Their ionization smoke detectors never sounded despite the fact that hot, black smoke filled the upper half of the 42-story complex, killing one and seriously injuring another.

You can not predict what type of fire you may have but smoldering ones are the deadliest. Fast flaming fires account for a larger percentage of fires (mostly started in the kitchen when occupants are awake), however smoldering fires (often occurring at night) are the leading cause of home fire deaths. Within the industry there's a movement to replace ionization detectors with photoelectric ones however the awareness by the general public is still quite low. 

I'm hoping that Nest gives up on finding a way to make their Wave feature work and instead focuses on educating consumers on photoelectric technology and their product's real benefits. After researching the differences, I'm convinced: if you only have one kind of smoke detector in your home, make it a photoelectricThis mama bear has both types in her home, just to be safe.

For maximum protection, install smoke alarms inside every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home, including the basement (replace units every 10 years). Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed in a central location outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home (replace units every 7 years). Most fire experts recommend having a completely interconnected system, however we decided for our house we’d rather be covered by the benefits of multiple technologies.

We installed a Nest Protect, which includes a carbon monoxide detector, on each floor. They interconnect wirelessly to each other but they can’t talk to our other ionization and photoelectric detectors. I didn’t feel like it was worth $129 to replace every alarm in the house, nor would I want to rely entirely on a new-to-market, largely untested device. I did however, feel it was worth adding to the mix for the remote alerts (in case we're not home when an alarm goes off) and because the Nests perform self-checks (since we never do the recommended monthly tests with our other detectors). This way, we have the security of knowing that at least one detector on each floor is working at all times. 

Here's more reading on the subject:

Ionization versus Photoelectric Smoke Alarms: In Real-World Fires The Differences Are Deadly

Deadly Differences, Ionization vs Photoelectric Smoke Alarms (data-filled presentation with links)

Organizations that advocate replacing all ionization alarms with photoelectric alarms:
International Association of Firefighters (a labor union representing firefighters in US & Canada)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Interior Photos: A Tour of Our House courtesy of Tam Vo Photography

Our baby has decided to be fashionably late, giving me time to spruce up the house and provide you with one last entry before slipping into the abyss of sleep deprivation. To assist with this post, our general contractor sent over his photographer friend, the talented Tam Vo. What I love about Tam's photos is that she didn't use one of those super tricked out wide-angle lenses that stretches every room into looking like an Architectural Digest spread. These photos (dogs and all) actually look like our home...well, except for being perfectly tidy and spotless, that's definitely a one-time embellishment. Enjoy the tour!

Living Room:


We kept the living room relatively small (12 ft 9 in x 11 ft.) since we don't plan to use it much. To make it feel more spacious, our awesome architect fought tooth and nail with the city planners to allow the living room ceiling to reach up to 10.5 ft high. The majority of the first floor is 9.5 ft high which we found to be plenty tall. Note: the height of your house is one of the areas Palo Alto planners always seem to take issue with.

Instead of two enclosed rooms, we joined the living room and office with a see-thru fireplace and a partial wall with an opening that connects them. The wall that wraps the fireplace is done in a Venetian plaster finish.

Office / Optional Dining Room:

We don't need a formal dining room, so we're using this space as our office. The room has pocket doors that can be closed if needed. You can see part of the door in the next photo (far left).

Entry:


Thanks to our architect's savvy negotiating skills, the city planners allowed us to have a dramatic 11.5 ft vaulted ceiling in our entry way. We adorned it with my favorite light fixture in the house, a stunning Arctic Pear chandelier (miraculously found on eBay). The entry is also conveniently wide enough to accommodate two dog beds by the front door so that Cisco and Astro can be on duty protecting our house while we're out.

Great Room:


Our great room includes a kitchen, dining nook and family room.  We made this the largest area of the house since we knew we'd be spending most of our time here. Our cabinets are custom made out of rift sawn white oak and stained with a natural, 0% VOC, oil finish by Rubio Monocoat.

We have a dining nook for entertaining. However, we eat most of our meals at the kitchen island. Topped with Madre Perla granite and a nifty "chef-inspired" prep sink from Kohler, the oversized island is our favorite part of the kitchen.








We installed Du Chateau engineered wood floors throughout the house. Engineered wood floors are more durable and resistant to moisture than hardwood, making them suitable for kitchens and homes with radiant heat. They are also more sustainable. I shopped around and got the best price for the floors plus installation from Al at Stanford Carpets. Their service turned out to be impeccable too, making them my #1 go-to shop for all things flooring (we also got carpet runners and vinyl attic flooring there too). What I like about the Du Chateau floors is that they have a hard wax finish from natural oils instead of toxic polyurethane. The wax soaks into the wood giving it a pleasing matte finish that can be spot-fixed. With polyurethane, you have to sand down and refinish the whole floor whenever you need to make fixes. Also, since Du Chateau floors are pre-finished and the wax only takes a day to dry, you save about 2 weeks in the build process.


_In our family room we replicated Bardessono's signature corner fireplace. We were able to do this thanks to Kristin, the uber-helpful guest services rep who researched the exact name of the tile (which I then ordered from Aubry Flooring). Located in the delicious town of Yountville, CA, Bardessono is our favorite dog-friendly weekend getaway spot. As one of the only LEED-platinum certified hotels in the country, it's a great place to get green design ideas.

The Granny Unit / Guest Suite / Flex room:


Off of our kitchen is a butler's pantry (aka mud room) that leads to the guest room / "Multi-Generational Wing." The idea behind this space is that it can be closed off via the pocket door and lived in as a separate, private unit. There's a small beverage fridge in the pantry, along with a sink plus room for a small cooktop and microwave. For now, it's our guest room for whomever is willing to change a few diapers during their stay.



We designed the cabinets/closets so that we can store a low profile, platform queen sized bed in them. This way we pull out and assemble the bed when we have guests and they can use the closet for their clothes. When we don't have guests we can put the bed back into the closet and convert the space into whatever suits our fancy.  Pretty sure that this will become a play room in the not too distant future...


The room has its own entrance and an excellent view of the squirrels in the backyard.

Because the guest room doesn't have any of the second floor over it, we were able to make the ceiling 13 ft high which feels spectacular when you walk in. It allows for lots of picturesque windows which makes it feel very zen but comes with a hefty price tag when you factor in electric windows and blinds. Two key learnings:  1. Electric windows aren't worth the cost and hassle.  2. Plan ahead when you have high windows and make sure you wire for automatic blinds before you close up the walls.

Guest bathroom:


And of course, guests are treated to a spa-like bathroom with a pretty pebble floor that's good for massaging tired feet.

Nursery: 

_If Baby O ever decides to make an appearance, this will be his room. The window seat was pure joy to create. CushionSource.com is an awesome website where you can order custom cushions and pillows.  I ordered the window seat cushion and coordinating bolster pillow from them. You simply plug in your dimensions and pick from their collection of fabrics or send in your own. It's super easy and they will send you fabric samples upon request.

The main light fixture is a cleverly disguised ceiling fan called the Fanaway. The fan has retractable plastic blades that tuck inside itself when not in use.



Here's a photo of the Fanaway in action. The only problem with the fixture is it comes with an obnoxiously bright white (4200K) florescent bulb. I replaced it with a warmer (2700K) bulb made by Satco (FCL 40W T5 - S8164) that you can purchase from Light Bulbs, Etc.

Astro's room:

I originally named this room the owl room because it overlooks the holly oak in our front yard where a family of owls lives. For whatever reason, Astro claimed this room as his own and can usually be found lounging in it when we're not home or when he needs his space.

Jack & Jill bathroom:


Astro's room and the nursery share a Jack & Jill bathroom. All of the tile in this bathroom came from All Natural Stone in San Jose. The counters are a polished Blizzard Caesarstone. The backsplash is shimmery glass tile mosaic that looks like little fish and is aptly named Rainbow Pisces.

Master bedroom:

All of the ceilings on the second floor are 8.5 ft, except for the master bedroom which we decided to make fancier and taller (9.5 ft).



The hallway leads to our beloved his and her closets and the master bathroom.

Master bathroom:

In addition to his and her closets, we also put in his and her shower heads. This is actually quite convenient if your spouse has tall Norwegian genes since you don't have to fiddle with the shower head height everyday. If you do decide to put in dual shower heads, make sure you use the Hansgrohe iBox rough. If you remove a special pin in it, you can use both shower heads at the same time (just don't mention this to the inspector). I'm also a big fan of the Mr. Steam steam shower feature...and eucalyptus lavender essence oils. Love. Love. Love.

Backyard:
We're still working away at our landscaping, but here's a peek at our backyard. After some initial missteps, our Evergreen Dogwoods are thriving once again.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Dog-Friendly Home Building (Part 1): Making an On-Demand Dog Water Fountain

Ever since he was a puppy, Cisco's always been a fan of water fountains.
A "dream home" means something different to everyone. When we started planning ours, a dog water fountain was on the top of my list. I didn't know what it would look like, I just knew that it would deliver fresh water on demand to my furry little kids with little effort on my part. After all, nothing says dog-friendly better than a bottomless bowl of water...

Yountville, one of our favorite weekend getaway spots has a special fountain for dogs.
Here's Cisco showing Astro puppy how it's done.

Fresh water is an important part of keeping pets healthy. However, dish washing has never been my forte and keeping a bowl clean and filled when you have two thirsty critters can get tedious. I've tried the plug-in reservoir fountains like the Dogit and the Drinkwell 360 which are good for making you *feel* like your pets are getting nice recirculated filtered water. In reality, they get slobbery and slimy really quickly. If you're a diligent pet parent then these are great but I found that the illusion of fresh water made me even lazier about cleaning the fountains.

When we embarked on building a custom home for our family, I explained to our contractor Jeff (and fellow dog lover) my vision and we conspired to make it a reality. Here's a must-see demo video of what we came up with...starring Astro who clearly has a budding future in doggy infomercials:



We had to do a fair amount of experimentation to get it right but the finished product is not very hard to construct if you plan ahead. This fountain is easy to include as part of a new home but could also be worked into a kitchen or bath remodel if you have the space and aren't on a slab foundation. We designed it like a shower so that the drain runs under the floor.

List of Materials:


Doesn't this sink look like it was made to be a dog bowl?
1. Semi-recessed or vessel sink
I splurged on this black mosaic sink from Linkasink because I love how it looks like a fancy dog bowl. I was lucky enough to find a floor model on sale at the amazing Bath & Beyond showroom in San Francisco, but really, a no-frills sink will do and you can get deals on eBay and Amazon. To keep the water from splashing outside the sink, I recommend getting a semi-recessed or vessel sink.

+

2. Wall-mount touchless faucet with sensor
I opted for the Kohler Purist Wall-Mount Faucet because the sensor is a separate unit and can be adjusted independently from the faucet.  This is important because you'll want to adjust the sensor to the right height for your dog/s. To run the faucet you also have to buy this Hybrid Control Kit.


_3. Tile & waterproofing materials
We waterproofed and tiled the area around the fountain in case of any splashing. It turns out the 17" Linkasink captures pretty much all the water but some dogs are more "vigorous" drinkers than others, so this is a wise step. We used extra tile from our bathrooms since you don't need much. One mistake we made was tiling the back wall before determining the correct height for the sensor. As a result, we had to use an elbow pipe when we wanted to adjust the height of the sensor since we had already drilled a hole in the tile.



_4. Extension pipe
We learned we needed this during the testing phase. We originally installed the sensor on the wall along with the faucet but then realized the dogs had to reach under the faucet in order to turn on the water, getting showered on in the process.

Oops, the sensor is pre-set to be triggered when a hand reaches under the faucet.
We wanted to drench the dogs' thirst, not their heads.


_.A Few Lessons:
1. Getting the sensor juuusst right...
The real trick to setting up the fountain is getting the sensor placement just right. Not only does the sensor need to be adjusted forward so that your dog will trigger it without getting rained on, you also want to make sure it's at the right height. If the sensor is too high, your dog won't be able to activate it. If the sensor is too low (as was ours the first time we set it), your dog will trigger it but when he moves his mouth upward to drink, he will no longer be in front of the sensor and it'll turn off before he can get a few licks of water.

Cisco testing the faucet height during the framing stage.

We found the best place to put the sensor is about an inch below the fountain spout and half an inch behind it. Note: This will vary depending on the sensor range of the faucet you select. Ours didn't specify the range in the manual so it required hands (and paws) on testing.

Astro's a little shorter than Cisco but it's better to place the faucet a little high than too low.

_2. Place the fountain in a strategic location
Ideally you want to place the fountain next to existing plumbing to limit the amount of additional pipes that you'll need. We placed ours at the end of our kitchen counter next to our main sink. We cased it in the end cabinet so that future owners could convert it to a storage cabinet should they choose. Of course, dog lovers are going to get special treatment when we eventually decide to sell the house. We also made sure to place the dog door near the fountain. Oddly, Cisco always steps outside after taking a long drink of water. Must be a golden years thing.

Hopefully all future owners will have a dog, if not they can convert the space back to cabinetry.


_3. Work with a great plumber
At our last house we learned the cost of do-it-yourself plumbing projects (and the importance of Teflon tape) after our self-installed dishwasher flooded our kitchen floor. Water lines are not something you want to mess with if you're a novice. Antonio, our awesome plumber helped us construct the fountain and ensure that it's water tight and up to code.

Special thanks to Antonio of ACH Plumbing for putting up with Astro's backseat plumbing.

P.S. If you are an avid do-it-yourselfer, AVBrand has instructions for how to build a nifty automatic dog water dish with an ice-maker water hookup line instead of dedicated plumbing in the floor. The bowl re-fills itself but you'll still have to clean it regularly since there's sitting water and no drain.

Skol!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Quick and Easy Driveway Apron – Thumbs Up for the Rubber BRIDJIT Curb Ramp

Yay, no more scraping our cars.
Keeeerrr-crunch! That was the sound of our cars bottoming out in the gutter every time we pulled in and out of our driveway for the last few months. It was a painful daily reminder that I needed to stop procrastinating and find a fix to the steep rolled curb between the sidewalk and street right off of our driveway. Not quite as fun as interior decorating and landscaping which is why the task kept slipping to the bottom of my to-do list.

Driveway Apron Options

The area between the sidewalk and the curb is called the driveway apron.  In our neighborhood most of the aprons are made of concrete with an embedded pipe to allow water to flow through it instead of pooling around the edges. Unfortunately, the pipes get easily clogged by leaves and street debris.

Most of our neighbors put concrete in the gutter to make the transition from their driveway smoother.

Some of our neighbors have fancier aprons made out of treaded (non-slip) steel plates. These have better drainage. The quote we received for a custom steel driveway ramp was approximately $2000 for 20 feet of gutter coverage.

Steel plates bolted into the sidewalk allow more clearance for water to drain underneath.

The option we ultimately decided upon was the BRIDJIT curb ramp system. It seemed like the quickest and easiest solution out there and it was relatively inexpensive compared to concrete or steel. They come in 4 foot sections so we ordered the BRIDJIT 3 Piece Curb Ramp Set plus three 48" Center Section Ramps to span across our 23-foot driveway. The total cost was approximately $730 and they showed up in two days thanks to Amazon Prime's free shipping. It's about $10 less if you order directly from the BRIDJIT website but I think it's worth paying a little more for Amazon's no-hassle return policy in case something goes wrong.

Each BRIDJIT section is 4 feet and weighs about 50 pounds (conveniently over my lift limit)


Installing the BRIDJIT ramp is pretty easy, especially if you're pregnant and have a strong spouse who volunteers to do it.

Made out of recycled tires, the ramps have just enough flex to accommodate the curve in our driveway.

The ramps get assembled upside down using galvanized bolts (included) to connect the sections together. Once you've attached all the sections you flip the ramp over and position it in the gutter. The weight of the ramp holds it in place so it doesn't have to be bolted down to the curb. We were worried it would move around and slip down the curb but so far we've driven over it many times and it has stayed in place.

Bolts connect the sections and a 2.5" groove allows water to flow underneath. 

As you can see from the photos, leaves and debris do collect under and around the ramp but it's easy enough to lift and clean if you have two people (one to lift a section while the other cleans, or two people to flip the entire ramp out of place). It's a small price to pay for Fahrvergn├╝gen.

Thumbs up for good ol' American innovation. Our new BRIDJIT ramp kept 24 old tires out of a landfill.

The best part is that BRIDJIT ramps are made in the USA out of scrap tires that would otherwise be piling up in a landfill. Woot! Everyone wins. Okay, now for the bad news...

Complying with City Codes  
Unfortunately, none of these driveway aprons–concrete, steel or BRIDJIT ramps conform to Palo Alto's building standards. Technically, before you mess with the city's curbs you are required to apply for a permit and have a licensed contractor do the work in accordance with city codes. I spoke to a very nice City of Palo Alto Public Works Engineer who acknowledged that most homeowners have modified their driveway aprons without a permit. The city's main concern is drainage, so if they find your driveway ramp is causing any drainage or safety issues they can pull it out without warning or permission from the homeowner. So while he didn't officially bless our rubber ramp, he did concede that it's lower risk since they are less permanent and can be moved easily.

So if you're a stickler for the law or don't want to invest in a solution that your city might rip out, here's what I recommend:

1. Call your city's Public Works Department and inquire about the requirements for your neighborhood. Most cities will not officially refer you to contractors but you can ask them to give you the names of the last dozen or so contractors to be issued Street Work Permits as a place to start.

Here's the contact info for Palo Alto, they were quite friendly and helpful:

Palo Alto Public Works Department
250 Hamilton Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Phone: 650-329-2151
Email: pwd@cityofpaloalto.org

2.  Before you pay for it yourself, find out if there are any capital improvement projects scheduled for your street. Periodically, cities invest in sidewalk projects which include things like fixing damaged sidewalks, tripping hazards, replacing curb ramps to make them ADA compliant, and easing gutters. In our case, our street is in the queue to be worked on in the Winter of 2014. I spoke to the engineer in charge who informed me that they intend to replace all of our driveway approaches at no cost to the homeowners. Woohoo! So if anyone needs some gently used BRIDJIT curb ramps next year, let me know...

The Modified Type B Curb
For those of you who are interested, here's the only Palo Alto-approved driveway apron design for our street.  [NOTE: Not every street has the same requirements so this does not necessarily apply to all streets in Palo Alto.] The design is fairly cost prohibitive given it involves ripping out the sidewalk along the driveway frontage and a $460 street work permit. One of our neighbors got an estimate of $3200 to do the work. *Ouch.* She ended up opting for the BRIDJIT curb ramps too.

Palo Alto's "Modified Type B Curb" spec. Looking at it makes my head hurt.