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'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 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 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)