Petrolhead re-redux

Well, it seems that some people found my mechanical-musings to be interesting, so I thought I'd give you a quick update on how the denizens of the garage are keeping my life interesting.

Stella (1994 Volvo 940 turbo-wagon):
The Volvo has a name, and her name is Stella. Replacing the RPM sensor was 10 minutes work, and in a 25-mile test drive, Stella behaved herself perfectly. The part was actually less than what we payed for the Fuel relay, so hopefully Sage can return that part to Kragen's, and come out ahead.

The Wasp (2005 BMW F650GSA): To keep up the theme of parts falling off my bike, I was lubing the chain and noticed that the little clip that keeps the master link in place had gone missing. Now the original chain has a riveted master link, so no clip to fall off. But San Jose BMW replaced the chain a year or so ago, and used a "removable master link" style. I took her in to CalMoto, and they suggested replacing the clipped master-link with a riveted one. $50 later, I had a freshly riveted, lubed and adjusted chain, and had gone one step further towards undoing any work that San Jose BMW have done to the bike. I was impressed with Cal Moto, and I will definitely be taking the Wasp back there in future.

SallyX (2008 Saleen S302E): I have been playing with the OBDII data collection for the Saleen, which has been very interesting, but so far has revealed no issues. In fact, the calibration engineer I have been working with said that he had rarely seen such good fuel trims. Next step will be a trip to a different dyno (at Mustang Ranch, the shop that did the Shelby restoration), to rerun and collect some more log data in the process.

Lola: (2008 MINI Cooper S): Lola has been off on adventures without us! On Tuesday night Jenny parked Lola in San Francisco, and came back to find her gone! It turns out that there had been a complaint from the people who's house Jenny had parked in front of, and the car had been towed. Thanks to google-maps, I got the chance to take a good look at where she was parked from the comfort of my armchair (I wonder how long it will be until google-maps goes real time? :-> ). You can clearly see that someone has actually taken a chisel to the curb, and hacked it down so that it looks like the driveway "easement" is wider than it really is. I think that she was parked legally, but that the parking inspector used the wrong location for deciding if she was encroaching on the driveway easement. We'll be fighting this one...

Betty: (1990 Ford F250): I have tested Betty a couple of times, and each time she has started up first turn of the key. Seems like what ever fiddling around I did fixed the problem. Either that, or she was just being difficult to prove a point...

Shelby: (1968 Shelby GT500KR): Sorry, no more news, just some photos I posted on facebook.

Petrolhead overload

Well, its time for a bit of a petrol-head update. For one reason or another, cars and all things mechanical have been much on my mind of late. So, for those who might be interested in that thought of thing, here is a quick rundown.

              Volvo, Interrupted.
Our friend (plus superb poet and performer) Sage was staying with us for a few days, along with her gorgeous dog George, and her classic "brick" 1994 Volvo 940 Turbo wagon. Her car was having a few problems, and kept deciding to stall and leave her stranded. After a San Francisco garage charged her $300 to swap around a spark plug wire and replace a lightbulb, we decided to do a bit of digging to see if the internetz could do a better job of being a mechanic. One good thing about these old Volvo's is that they seem to have a very strong fan club. We determined that there was a good chance that it might be the fuel-relay, but we replaced that, and the car stalled yet again. I decided I needed to have a chat with the car directly.

Chris: Yeah. Your car.

Sage: Yeah?

Chris: Very angry.

Sage had to get back to LA, so left the car in my care. I decided that politically-incorrect Native-American voices wouldn't do the job, and started looking into really talking to the car. It turns out that these Volvo's have a simple "OBD" (OnBoard Diagnostic) port, and that by plugging in a wire and pressing a button, the car will actually tell you whats wrong. A few minutes of morse code later, and the car had told me that it wasn't actually a fuel problem it was an ignition problem - and that the RPM sensor was intermittently failing. So, I ordered a new part (which should arrive in a few day), and it should be a matter of minutes to install - we'll see just how truthful he was being when he told me what was wrong. Lets just hope it doesn't end like this:

Chris: The car's still angry, huh?

Sage: Angry? That car is pissed!

Betty lives, and the tale of a bush mechanic

As readers might remember, Jenny and I had a minor car accident in Betty. The damage wasn't too bad, but the front bumper would rub on the left hand front wheel when turning sharply. Being a well-known bush mechanic (and for once not having an angle-grinder to hand), I found us a nice spot between two trees, unlimbered the winch, a chain, and a couple of straps, and popped the bumper back into place. After that, Betty happily carried us a couple of thousand miles, including into the heart of off-road Death Valley. (photos to follow).

I got a quote for the repairs, but the assessor was more worried about what my insurance company would cover, rather than actually fixing Betty. As the accident was totally the fault of the other driver, I decided it would make a lot more sense to claim from her insurance. The assessors came out, and thoroughly checked out Betty (including pointing out several things that my assessor had missed). The final result was that Betty was a "write-off".

Now, that's not as bad as it sounds. All that means is that the insurance company pays out the total worth of the vehicle, and for a small charge, you get to keep the vehicle itself. In this case, the "residual" was about $1000 - meaning that I got a nice cheque from the insurance company, and got to keep Betty. There are several bureaucratic hoops to jump through to get a "salvage" car re-registered. The most annoying part was the fact that the DMV says in big letters "YOU HAVE 10 DAYS TO COMPLETE THE PAPERWORK", but when I fronted up to the DMV, they couldn't even start the paperwork, as the salvage note hadn't made it into their system yet. Still, a followup visit a few weeks later, and Betty is now re-registered, and back on the road.

With some hot cash in my hand, of course, I started to think about replacing Betty. She is almost 20 years old, has 115k miles, and although she is in great condition (except for the bent bits), does have her "character" moments. She is also a model from before such items as air-bags, ABS, and Direct Injection diesel, so I figured if there was a time to replace her, now would be it. Above all, the places we take her (and plan on taking her), reliability is key, and a newer truck is bound to be more reliable, right? Or is it? It turns out that the new engine in Ford trucks in notoriously unreliable. So, that limits my choice of new vehicles. After much research, I decided that a 7.3l diesel F350 4x4, Supercab, with an 8' bed, would be the truck to do the job. I also wanted single rear wheels (not the "dually" sort). After some research, I discovered that Dodge does do a similar truck in the 1-ton style (i.e. with single rear wheels), but those are even harder to find than the Fords.

I tracked down one, a 2003 not too far away, and took it for a test drive. It was great, one owner, pretty good condition, and had some "interesting" aftermarket addons. The woman's asking price was a little high, and after some discussion with Jenny, I decided to make a lower offer. We went back and forth for a few days, and I made an offer that she said "she thought she would accept" - but in the end, sold it to someone else for a little more.

About this time, Betty started being a little finicky - difficult to start, transmission shifting strangely. Did she know that I was driving her, but thinking about another truck? Well after the deal on the new truck fell through, I played around with Betty some to figure out the problem. Some patience, some fiddling, and some harsh words, and I got her started, and seem to have temporarily fixed the problems. Most importantly, I think I know why she wasn't starting well - a simple o-ring leak at the fuel-heater connection. A 20c part, but an hours (smelly) work to pull the filter and heater connection apart. My prodding seems to have slowed the leak, so maybe it was just Betty being difficult.

So, Betty lives on. I am still looking at other trucks, but I'm in no rush, so I can wait patiently for just the right truck, and just the right price. Or maybe Betty will just keep powering on, and really will carry us to the end of the world and back again...

Saleen, Uninterrupted

So, flushed from my success as a Volvo-whisperer, I decided that I really should be talking to all of my cars. The Volvo had an older (and unstandardized) "OBD" port, but all US cars manufactured since 1996 include an "OBD-II" port. This makes the old pushbutton/LED method look downright primitive. Using a plugin cable and converter box, it is possible to access all of the cars sensors, and see all of the inputs that the car's ECU (Engine Control Unit) sees. There are many stand-alone boxes, but I decided to opt for a computer interface, so that I can run software on my laptop, and connect it wirelessly to the car. Although there is a lot of freeware software out there, I chose the ScanXL software, as it seemed the most competent, and also supports (at an extra fee), all of the "extra" data that Ford cars put out. You see, although the OBDII interface is a standard, that standard only specifies generic parameters. Each manufacturer then adds a bunch of their own custom parameters on top.

As you might remember, I was a tiny bit disappointed with the dyno results from testing Sally. While she was still putting out a solid 500HP at the wheels, the air-fuel ratio was low (10.0, meaning the car is running rich), and I was expecting a little more power than that. She is still technically under warranty, but there is a long and sad tale about what happened to the Saleen company. In the end, the news was all good for us owners, with not one, but two companies offering to cover warranties - MJ Acquisitions (which now owns the "Saleen Inc" brand), and SMS Supercars (Steve Saleen's new company). I will not comment on the politics of the whole thing, but I got little help from Saleen Inc/MJ when I contacted them about the issue. However, after contacting SMS Supercars, I got a call from an actual Engineer! Not a tech, not a customer support person, but the guy that actually designs and calibrates the engine management systems for SMS (and previously, for Saleen Inc.). He was a wealth of knowledge and help, and with his assistance I am learning a lot about the internal working of the ECU. It is one thing to be able to look at sensor data from and engine, but quite another thing to actually be able to interpret what that data means! Being an Engineer myself, I really appreciate this. I provided them with a new set of captured data, measuring "fuel trims" at idle, which is a great diagnostic tool. The data looked OK to me, as in it didn't seem to indicate any underlying problem such as a vacuum or exhaust leak, but I am waiting on confirmation from SMS. If that is the case, then the next step will probably be to re-dyno the car at another location, to try and eliminate equipment problems in the measurement.

Another thing that OBDII provides is "DCT", or trouble codes - but Sally was clean in this respect, no problems of any kind reported.

I could go into a long discourse about what I have learned about A/F ratios, but here is a potted summary. You can go see wikipedia for more information if you are interested.  In practical (rather than theoretical) terms, an AF ratio of 10.0 is rich - which means that the car is "safe" (an important consideration in high-performance, and particularly supercharged, engines), but not as optimal as it could be. It can also damage catalytic converters, as there is more un-burned fuel in the exhaust than necessary. For a car like this, the target is somewhere around 11.5, although there could be long and detailed discussions over exactly where to aim. If the AF ratio gets up to 13.0, then the car is starting to run "lean". This is the dangerous one, as it pushes combustion temperatures up, and can cause "detonation" - A Bad Thing(tm).

So, an AF ratio of 10.0 is not really a big deal, but never the less, seems to indicate some other issue. It could be as simple as a measurement problem on the origin dyno run, or it could indicate some other problem. The bottom line is, I have found a way that I can nourish my inner petrol-head, without getting my hands dirty - is that not a perfect hobby for Chris? :)


After writing all of that, I felt the other members of the stable might feel a little left out - each one has their own story too!

Mini makes me laugh. The play the hip, cool, retro-Brit image to the hilt. But under that thin veneer, they really are a German car company. (in my best non-PC Clarkson impersonation) "You vill not bving your car in for service before ze due date!". Lola flashed me a message on her message board about a service reminder, but it disappeared again, and the only date I could find in the onboard computer showed the next service as 06/2010. I knew there was supposed to be a 12-month service, and I figured if the 2-year service was due in June 2010, that the 12-month service would be due in June-09. Sounds reasonable? Well, not so... I booked Lola in for a service on July 8th, and when I arrived - they turned me away! The "anniversary" data was July 26th apparently, and Mini does not tolerate early service. This despite the fact that I had received several emails and letters warning me that my service was due (but none of them told me exactly when). I complained to Mini about this (because they "value my feedback") - and was told in no uncertain terms that this is the way things are, and nothing could ever possibly change it, ever. When I suggested that perhaps if they were going to refuse to service cars (I should point out that Mini does foot the bill for the services for the first 3 years), that perhaps they should be a little less enthusiastic with the reminder emails and letters. That suggestion was met with a deafening silence...

Still, i took Lola back a few weeks later, mostly to have a recall done (the original center-mount exhaust tips stick out too far, and can burn incautious legs). They gave me a zippy little BMW 3-series to get around in, which was a good thing because they wound up keeping Lola for two days. When I picked her up (after a little mixup when they bought around the wrong car...), she was shiny and clean - and I swear she has gained some extra HP and throttle response. I really wish that I had my OBDII interface before I put her in, so I could see what had changed, but I'm not going to look a gift tune in the calibrations!

I put the latest Wasp story on yelp. Here it is again:

This is a review of their service department. I have been coming to San Jose BMW for service on my BMW F650 Motorcycles for about 6 years. It was kind of a "Devil you know" thing - they are friendly and helpful, give out loaner bikes, but their actual mechanical aptitude is poor. Perhaps it is because the BMW F650s are not that common, but this *is* a BMW house - you would expect them to be the best.

My first bike was a '97 F650. I had starting problems with the bike, and tried several times to get it repaired. After spending a lot of money, I decided it might be a carb issue, so had them rebuild the carbs. I picked up the bike and made it 3 miles before the bike died. Waiting 15 minutes, it would start again, and then die.

Finally I gave up, and bought a new '05 F650 from them. I sold the old bike to a guy, who had to re-rebuild the carbs, and quickly tracked the original problem down to a burned valve, which he fixed.  As this is a comment on their service department, I won't go into the problems I had with the purchase procedure.

Being a new bike, my '05 has been pretty trouble free. They had to replace the sprocket and chain after only 10k miles, and when I asked them for some advice as to why, the response from the tech was "I don't really know much about chains" - not the sort of answer I expected from a dealership.

I recently took it in for a new front tire, and oil change. 2 days and 100 miles after the oil change, I walked out to the bike, and noticed that it looked a little odd. Looking closer, I realized that the engine skid-plate (the aluminum piece that sits under the engine) was hanging down, held on by just a few turns of one bolt.

While they were very apologetic about this, and fixed the problem, I am afraid that there is no excuse for parts falling off a motorcycle. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had been taking a corner and the engine guard had come off. They offered nothing more - no refund for the work done. Their apologies were sincere, but no offer of a refund, and no word from upper management (I'm sorry, parts falling off a motorcycle would seem to me to warrant a call from the owner).

And as for the Shelby - well, admittedly I drive her the least, but it is interesting that the oldest car in the stable (she turned 40 last year), is also the least dramatic. She always starts right up, drives beautifully, looks great, and gets more attention on the road than any other car I have owned!

Miffed at Sony

I have a Sony Vaio Laptop, VGNTZ180N/R. A great little laptop, but recently I have been having some DVD problems. So, as I didn't have anything better to do, I embarked on a service call this afternoon. 1 hour and 20 minute late, I am still going...

The laptop is a year and a half old, but I purchased a 3-year extended warranty, so I know I'm covered. But finding out where to call isn't as easy as you might expect...

After navigating the website, I didn't find any online service support, so I started with the Sony Style support number - and got a recording telling me to call another phone number. I called that number, and after navigating the menu for a while, was asked to enter my Credit Card (as the computer is more than 12 months old). OK, no way... so I tried again, and managed to get through to a human, who gave me a number for the extended service plan. After wandering through their menu, I got through to someone, who checked and toldme I had a 2-year Manufacturer's Warranty, and so transferred me back to Sony. The guy there tried to charg me $50 (again, because the computer is more than 1 year old). We are about 25 minutes into this now.

After describing the problem, trying some firmware updates (which I had already done), he was about to sign me off with a ticket number, as I couldn't consistently reproduce the problem. Luckily enough I figured it out just at that point - the DVD drive works fine when I insert a disk and play it straight away. If I insert a disk, and wait or the disk drive to spin down, and the try and access the disk - I get a horrible mechanical clunk/grind noise, and it won't recognise the disk. So, the first guy got a "Product Specialist" on the line. We went through many of the same things again, including rebooting (this is Vista remember - each reboot is about 5 minutes). We're now at about an hour for this.

So, finally they agree there is a problem - and inform me that the only solution is to ship them them computer, which they ill keep for 7-10 business days, and then ship it back. So, I would be without the computer for at least 2 weeks, not to mention that all my data is on the machine. Ah well, I have been looking for an excuse to reinstall Vista, so I might as well take the opportunity to move all my data off and just reinstall the whole thing. Its a pity Windows 7 isn't here yet, otherwise I would just go with that. At lest I have a month to ship the laptop to them, so time to play around with it. Still - I really wish I had ponied up the extra for the "onsite" warranty plan...
  • Current Mood
    annoyed annoyed

What I do

From time to time, people ask me to explain exactly what it is that I do. I'm usually a little vague, because in this industry, especially working for a startup, you have to be a little careful about what you say. But for my company Caustic Graphics, stealth mode is most definitely over, and we hope to make at big splash at the upcoming Siggraph (one of the major Computer Graphics Conferences). So I thought I would post up a few links to what the company does.

Basically, we are working on hardware that will accelerate "Ray Tracing". Here is a very non-partisan primer on just what "Ray Tracing" means today. Caustic Graphics is on the cutting edge of this exciting technology, and our solution addresses many of the problems that the author notes.

For an idea of the end result, here is an image gallery of stills that were generated using our rendering software. Now imagine those images being generated in real time - being able to move the viewpoint, move items around, switch on and off lights, etc. That is our goal, and as you can imagine, the end results will be nothing short of breathtaking.

As for what I do - I am working on the design of the hardware that will enable this acceleration. It is a real challenge, and I have done more mathematics in the last year than I have done since leaving college. Fun stuff, and with the economy showing definite signs of a turn around, I think we are well on our way to big things!


  • Current Mood
    artistic artistic

We're baaaack

Jenny and I returned from a wonderful week's vacation yesterday. Lots of adventures were had, and we'll post a full write-up soon. We camped out in Betty (our 1990 F250 with a Northlands Camper) for a week, in 4 different National Forests and one National Park. Oddly enough, it was hotter in San Jose when we got back, than it had been in the middle of Death Valley!

The trip got off to an inauspicious start - while driving through the small town of Groveland on the Friday night, a woman backed her car straight across the road infront of us! This happened at 9:30pm, right outside the main pub, and so within minutes just about the entire town had turned out to watch the entertainment. No injuries, and while her car was pretty badly beaten up, Betty got off pretty lightly. I consider this a good thing - if we had to have a car accident, having one while driving slowly through town in a big truck with a bull bar on the front, is the way to do it!

Although Betty's winch mount and fog lights were pretty bady bent, the worst part was that the bumper was pushed back onto the tires. A bit of judicious bending using a "Hi lift" jack got us driving again, but the tires would still rub when turning sharply. A brief bit of work with two trees and a winch popped the bumper back into place again, and we were good to go on the rest of our adventure!

Stay tuned for more stories of our adventurous week....

SallyX - Extreme by name, Extreme by nature

So, as faithful readers will remember, in December Jenny and I were treated to the delivery of a new addition to the family. 

Being an out-of-state car (I purchased the car from Frontier Ford in Anacortes, Washington), it was a bit of a hassle getting through the California Smog and Licensing, but finally I got the number plates, and she was now road-ready. 
On the road

The next bit of drama was an announcement by Saleen Inc that they would no longer honour warranties. That was a bit of a concern, and till the man himself, Steve Saleen, stepped up and said that his new company (SMS Supercars) would honour all existing Saleen warranties. What a guy!

Now in the owner's manual, Saleen were very clear about the running-in period. Opinions differ on whether this is necessary or not, but with a high-performance, hand built 5.0l engine, I wasn't taking any chances. So, being the good boy I am, I kept the revs down to a reasonable range. Well, today was a big day!

1000 miles

So, a quick call to the lads at TPS Motorsports, and SallyX and I were off for our first run on the dyno. Unfortunately I wasn't prepared enough, so the video is a totally crappy one shot from my phone - it really doesn't do justice to the adrenalin pumping scream that SallyX lets out as she runs her way up to 6400RPM.

The results? 500HP (SAE), and 460ft-lbs of torque - right where I was hoping to be!

Dyno sheet

Not bad for a bone-stock car. Here are the gory details of what an S302E consists of, if you're interested:

Window Sticker

American Idle

As a surprise for Jenny, I managed to pick up tickets for "Opening Night" of Spamalot, at the Golden Gate Theatre. I'm not sure it was officially opening night, but it was the first non-preview show, so that spells opening night to me!

Jenny and I are staying up in San Francisco at the Mark Hopkins International. That became our favorite hotel when we discovered the superb Sunday brunches they serve at the Top of the Mark (the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel). Yes, it looks fancy-schmancy, but me being an eagle-eyed bargain hunter, I managed to not only land us a great rate - but also get a deal where for every two nights we stay, they throw in a free one! We walked down Taylor street towards the Theatre (although it was still a surprise for Jenny as to where we were going), and decided to stop for dinner at the Grand Cafe in the Hotel Monaco. The place had a great Ambiance, delicious food, and fantastic decor (with many sculptures by an artist who's name escapes me right now!)

Jenny looked fantastic, dressed up in her green dress, with brunette hair. Yes, as a fun little change, she was wearing a really cute little brunette wig. For those who havan't seen me lately, I currently have black hair, and a long black beard and mustache, and was wearing a dinner jacket and Hawaiian shirt - so as usual, we made quite the pair! jenny's wig played quite a part in the adventures of the night, as you will see later!

After dinner, we wandered down to the Golden Gate Theatre for the show. Our seats were OK, in the orchestra level but quite far back, and the view and sound were both fine. The curtain came up on the first act, and of course, I started giggling in the first few seconds of the show, and pretty much didn't stop for the next hour! it was great fun, well put together, and so packed full of "in" Monty Python jokes.

Intermission came around, and Jenny and I headed to the bar to pick up our (pre-ordered) drinks. A slight mixup with the order got us a second beer for free. As we were trying to find a quiet spot to stand, I spotted a familiar looking profile just walking through the door into the lobby. At the same time, Jenny turned to me and said "There's a guy here that looks just like Eric Idle." Not so - there was a guy there that *was* Eric Idle. How exciting, I was standing three feet from the author of the show, and the Monty Python legend.

After we finished our drinks, I headed down to the bathroom. On my way back, I peeked in the door of the theatre, but couldn't see Jenny. Ah, but that was because I was looking for a blond, and she was currently a brunette! So, I wandered back to where we had been standing before, and who should I see standing at the merchandise stand, but the man himself. Now I have never been good with meeting famous people - I can't but help imaging what it must be like for them getting pestered by fans all the time, and I am usually a little shy. In actual fact not many people seemed to have noticed him, and I waited my chance, and walked up and shook his hand. I complimented him on the show, and then added "and thank you for all that you have done over the years". Yeah, pretty lame, but it was from the heart. I was all abuzz when I finally got back to my seat, and settled in for Act Three (Two, sir).

After the show, which culminated with a standing ovation, Eric Idle got up on stage to say a few words. It is the 40th anniversary of Monty Python, and I think he was quite touched by the reaction he got from the audience. The show really was great - in true Monty Python style, Eric Idle managed to poke fun at just about every aspect of Musical Theatre - while at the same time, paying homage to Musical Theatre's great entertainment value.

The evening culminated with Profiteroles and Lagavulin back at the Grand Hotel, and Jenny and I virtually floated back up the hill to the hotel. All in all, a superb night out in San Francisco!

Chris the Plumber...

Spring has sprung, and naturally a young mans mind turns to ... plumbing? Yes, I decided to play the plumber for the weekend. I'm not exactly "Joe the Plumber", but I actually quite enjoyed it, so i thought I would recount the tales...

A few months ago, I noticed that our water bills were going up - despite the fact that winter had arrived, and the sprinklers had been shut off for ages. Our water softener has (or rather, had) a feature called the "Water Mizer" - a little red light that lights up when there is water running. I checked that to see if anything was running - and found that the water softener itself was leaking! Luckily it was not actually leaking onto the ground, but the overflow was running out of the backwash pipe and into the drain. It did pretty good service for 11 years, so I figured we did OK. I disconnected it from the system - which should have been an easy job, but was actually quite tricky - a previous owner of the house had done some DIY plumbing in the garage (including the water softener hookup) - and they were not all that good at it. In fact, instead of water pipe, they used thin-wall electrical conduit! This was probably 25 years ago, so the water softener hookup was fragile to say the least. Not only that, but there had at one time been a sink installed in the garage, and there was now a rats-nest of pipes and drains. Anyway, I managed to disconnect the water softener without breaking anything, and left it at that, planning to come back and do the job properly at some point.

Now a week or so ago, i was taking a look at where I would install the new softener - and noticed that the ground was damp. Yep, things always seem to happen at once - turns out that the water heater had sprung a leak. It did us pretty good service too, considering its warranty expired in 1990 (making it at least 25 years old). It was a slow leak, but it had soaked the "pedestal" (water heaters in CA have to be raised off the floor when installed in a garage, to avoid petrol vapours), which was made of wood and sheetrock - when sheetrock gets wet, it basically starts to fall apart. So, in the spirit of "doing the job right", I pulled out the old heater, and pulled apart the pedestal. Uggg, it turns out that under the pedestal was a lovely place for a rats nest, that had then been soaked by the leaking water - not pleasant. I spent several hours breaking things down and cleaning up, ready for the "new install".

I did a lot of research on new water heaters - I like to upgrade to the latest technology where possible. But in this case, the alternative to a classic old water heater is a "tankless water heater" - but the more I read about them, the less I liked them. They may be slightly more economical (as they have no storage costs), but require a much higher gas draw (10x that of a standard water heater), which means that the old gas line would probably not be big enough, and the venting would also have to be upgraded. There is also a question of how much they can supply, and even the biggest will struggle if you want to shower while the washing machine is running. The solution is to install two or more in parallel, but that was all starting to get way too complicated - so it was off to home depot for a plain-old storage water heater.

In looks, the new heater is more or less *exactly* the same as the one it was replacing - same height, same width, same inlets, outlets and vents - not much has changed there in 25 years. I did choose a good one, a GE with a 12-year warranty, and an energy star rating wualifying me for a $30 rebate from PG&E (thats the gas and electric company), and, believe it or not, a tax-credit for next year! Well, I guess that should make me feel green, right?

I rebuilt the pedestal, with cement board this time (water proof), and added a "drip pan" under the water heater to catch any eventual leaks, and direct them to a drain. I even painted the pedestal and wall "sunburst yellow", which makes this little corner look quite cheery - although of course now the rest of the garage needs doing as well... the trickiest part was getting the new water heater into place - these things weigh in at around 150 pounds, and the pedestal is 20 inches high - plus a 3-inch lip on the drain pan. But I love a challenge like that, so with three long boards resting on some bricks in the pan, I slowly "walked" the water heater into place. The last little step of removing the bricks required a little brute force (and help from Jenny), but it all went prett smoothly.

Hookup was simply a matter of reconnecting the water lines, gas line, and vent. The tricky part was the "overflow" pipe - water heaters are fitted with a pressure release valve (which should be tested once a year - have you tested your pressure relief valve today?), which needs to be piped through hot water pipe (i.e. no PVC), and to a drain (or to the outside, as this one was). The previous installation was "dodgy" to say the least, built out of bits of galvanised pipe, and not at all following "code". Well, I hooked it up as is for the short term, knowing that I was coming back to attack the rest of the plumbing shortly.

So, next was the water softener. As I said, the plumbing for that was extremely dodgy, so finally I just pulled out the lot, including the afore mentioned "rats nest" of pipes and drains. Amazing, it opened up a huge space in the garage! The new water softener (also a GE, as it happens) has connections for 1" pipe. The water pipe coming up from the ground is also one inch, as is the pipe leading into the house for service. So, I carefully made all my plans for the new plumming route, and went and bought all of the 1" parts and pipes I would need. When I went to cut off the water mains though, I discovered that the actual pipe leading off the water meter is only a 3/4"! Ah well, 1" pipe won't hurt, but I definately could have got away with 3/4".

One thing I didn't like is that the new water softener is designed for a "fixed" connection - the old one had flexible pipes for the hookup, which makes things easier. With a rigid connection, you have to make your measurements carefully so that the connection is at just the right height and spacing - and from experience, that can sometimes prove tricky. But, luck was on my side, and after I finished all of the hookup, I was spot on in the right place. I plumbed everything in, waited the 2 hours for the pipes to cure, and with fingers crossed - turned on the mains. No leaks, hurrah! So, no we have nice soft water again (the water at our house is very hard, as it is all well water).

Next step on the plumbing front is installing a new water filter. Water softeners don't add all that much sodium, but we do drink a lot of water, and that means our sodium intake was probably 10-20% higher because of the softener. That doesn't worry me too much, we don't eat much processed food, and never add salt when cooking, so our sodium intake is still probably way less than the average person's. Still, water is pretty important stuff, so I am considering fitting a reverse osmosis filter for drinking water. Any one have one?