Friday, December 30, 2011

A Painter's Promise

Earlier this week, I was glad to hear that a close friend of mine, a NYC painter, had started to see a tremendous influx of work after a particularly dire dry spell. We met years ago, at the retirement party of a colleague of his that I apprenticed under for a summer, and we kept in touch, even worked on a few jobs together. He’s been around for a while and has some experience and, as such, I was glad to hear about the work but was woe to hear about the circumstances that brought him the job.

There are varying theories on just how much responsibility is put on painters, and all other handymen and service providers for that matter, when they take up a job. The times I’ve worked with painters, the only major responsibility we put to the customer was clearing out the way and ensuring none of their larger, more valuable items got splattered. My friend the painter (there’s no harm, I suppose, in referring to him as “Mike”) requests this service as well but I’ve seen him move more than one or two couches in our day.

One thing that is commonplace, however, is that the painter takes care of any repairs, as long as they are paid a reasonable amount for their time and labor. The gross lack of these minor considerations was the reason Mike was called into a young couple’s home in Seaford to steam and strip some wallpaper and paint. As was relayed to me, the original painter, an independent four-man crew, promised to have the work done within a week, didn’t contact the woman of the house for nearly three weeks (despite several phone calls to them) and then cited the fact that she hadn’t removed the wallpaper yet as the reason they didn’t start, even though they had originally stipulated that they would take care of cleaning and repairing before painting the walls.

Steaming and stripping wallpaper is hardly a job that requires any sort of expertise. Renting a steamer is a simple task and there are numerous ways to learn how to properly use the device. The one I used (I’ve only had the privilege four times in my life) consisted of a three-foot-high tank with rubber tubing running to a large square (about 2’5”x 2’5”) that emits heavy doses of steam. You press the square against a desired area for about 20 seconds to half-a-minute and use a paint scraper to remove the loosened wallpaper.

As would be expected, there are certain patches that require repair from the process, most of which can be fixed with some joint compound, a taping knife and some sandpaper to even out the repaired area. Even if it was more of a chore, however, it certainly isn’t something that would cause a three-week delay, and that is disregarding the fact that no one said that he had to ensure the repairs in the first place! Again, I am glad enough to see Mike happy and working but the NYC handyman in me gets riled by such deplorable behavior. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Garage Sales

There was work going on at my mother’s neighbor’s house while I was home in Albany last week and I couldn’t help but inquire with my mother’s neighbors about what the trouble was. In the suburbs, electronic garage doors are a far more regular sight than they are in the city, even in the outer boroughs of NYC. One thing that distinguishes electronic garage doors to manual ones is that the electrical ones can get into what any electrician, NYC or not, would call “phantom operations.” Apparently, this had happened to my mother’s neighbors right after the installation but they were unable to contact the man who had installed it to do a check-up. My mother’s neighbors, The Matthews, had even driven to their offices, only to find it closed, in the middle of the day, on a weekday.

Michael and Joan (The Matthews) were able to get a pretty reasonable price on an inspection and servicing but the idea that the installer felt the need to duck the repair is disquieting. Unless this was a straight-up bilk job – doubtful, seeing as my neighbor had received a recommendation for the man – there is no conceivable reason that wouldn’t fall under the rubric of incalculable greed. Having talked to my NYC electrician and installer friends this week, many of them said the main reason for phantom operations is a power surge, which most installers and/or electricians can diagnose pretty easily. Now, the Matthews are doing well enough that they can afford to have someone else come and do the work, but this should be something that the installer takes responsibility for, especially considering the installation wasn’t but a week old when the operations began.

There are of course other reasons: faulty remotes, nearby use of advanced electronics (think military bases or larger digital firms), and bad storage (keeping the remote in a cluttered glove department). But these are also things that could be very simply diagnosed by anyone who has installed electronic garage doors for longer than a year. To me, its just another way to make customers nervous about installers, which is certainly not the picture that should be painted when jobless claims are slow rising. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Christmas Clean-Up

As we slog through that often near-comatose period that exists between Christmas and the New Year, it’s a bit of a chore to concentrate on the job at hand. Luckily, my holidays (which went very well, thank you for asking) included at least one incident that made me think of home solutions and common things that homeowners find themselves dealing with even when they are attempting to be festive and care-free.

The harbinger of this solution was Guinness (formerly known as Gus), the pint-size French bulldog that became my mother’s ward earlier this year. I am thoroughly convinced that Guinness has some goblin DNA in him but those who have seen French bulldogs will no doubt attest to the impossibilities of not playing with them and showering them with attention. So it was, while my girlfriend was teasing poor Guinness with a rope toy as my father and me were preparing a salad, the little quasi-goblin canine decided to relieve himself quickly on the carpet, for seemingly little more reason than over-excitement.

When I was growing up in my mother’s home, my dog (Bishop, a golden Labrador) was prone to these accidents as well and as such, my grandmother taught both my mother and me the ins and outs of avoiding bacteria buildup and that inevitable, unbearable smell that comes along with it. The tools needed were, and still are, quite common: paper towels, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, rubber gloves, a scrubbing brush, dish detergent and baking soda. Some current websites also call for a black light but I have done without, so I’m certain you can too.

Use the paper towels to do an initial soak-up of all the urine; depending on how you handle bodily fluids, the rubber gloves may be useful here.  When most of the urine has been soaked up, empty half a bottle of white vinegar into a bucket and match that amount with room-temperature water. Use a scrubbing brush to get this solution down into the fibers and get rid of any collected bacteria. Then, use the paper towels (or a wet-dry vacuum, if it’s available) to dry up the area once again and once dry, sprinkle some baking powder on top of the area. Pour a mixture of one cup of hydrogen peroxide and a teaspoon of dish detergent (Palmolive works best) over the baking soda and use the scrubbing brush once more to work the mixture into the fibers.

After you dry the last bit, the bacteria should be gone for good and your carpet should be in the clear until the next time your pup can’t keep him/herself in check. To be completely honest, this isn’t a family secret: most professional maids know this technique inside out. Nevertheless, it’s a nice process to have in your back pocket, especially if you’re a pet owner and have extensive carpeting in your house. It might very well save your next Christmas from smelling like the inside of a busy kennel.   

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Quick Class: Float Ball

A short post today, nothing fancy. We’ve been working on some videos over at Click and Improve and while writing a few of them, one thing that came up was common things that people see but don’t know the use for. One thing that came up, as I was talking to a NYC plumber at a recent meeting, was how the mechanisms in the back of the toilet tank work together and how a kink in their process is what tends to be the cause of a runny toilet. This led me to the floater ball, which I remember used to be completely alien to me; that black ball in the toiet tank that looks like an inflatable croquet ball. Not to get too gross, but the winter months can be some battle-test weeks for your toilet and this was something that seemed to be an easy DIY repair job to go through.

The float ball sits on the water and when the toilet flushes, it drops, causing the float arm to raise the valve plunger and bring fresh water into the tank until the floatball is floating again. The most common effect of a defective float ball is a running toilet, and there are a few things that can cause this. The float ball can be cut or leaky, which can cause it to not float properly. There’s also a possibility that the float ball is rubbing up against the side of the tank, which can cause a tear or make it so the lever doesn’t lift properly.

The most common solution is replacement, as float balls are relatively cheap. Regardless, you should replace it immediately, as it links directly with the mechanism that ensures that you can flush your toilet properly. To replace it, you’ll have to turn the water shutoff valve to the toilet and flush the toilet to empty the tank. Use a pair of pliers to take off the rod arm and float ball. Turn the rod arm counterclockwise to remove the defective float ball before threading the new float ball on the rod arm and tighten it. Turn the water back on to the toilet and reattach the rod arm, bending it to reach a desirable level to meet the water level.

Okay. So, admittedly, some of that stuff takes a bit more effort than I led on, but plumbing in general tends to be a craft that even the most experienced of practitioners are consistently refining and honing. But this is a good thing to have in your back pocket when the sound of swirling water is keeping you up to hours that would make Santa cock an eyebrow. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Scam Outs

As the hours tick away towards the holiday weekend, I find myself taking a look more and more at reports of contracting scams, which is upsetting to say the least. There is, I suppose, a certain glee in knowing that I take pride in my work and customer service, as do a great deal of the NYC plumbers I work with, in contrast but that’s mostly pride and doesn’t really help the hundreds of reports from victims of contractor malfeasance that come in daily. During the holidays, when you’ve just spent a large portion of your paycheck on Batman: Arkham City and that Justin Bieber concert movie (on blu-ray, no less), it’s doubly disappointing.

An article published yesterday in the Washington Post spurred my interest in these matters. A technology officer out of Great Falls, along with some other swindlers, decided to bilk the Army Corps. of Engineers out of nearly $20 million while working for Nova Datacom. The scam involves kickbacks (never thought I’d get to use that word), conspiracy and a web of bribes reaching back to 2007. It’s a quagmire, to put it politely, but the truth is that I react far more strongly to local, smaller-scale scams, seeing as it tarnishes the name of all service providers, including and maybe especially NYC handymen.

One of the more perplexing reports I read was from a customer in Buffalo, complaining about a home improvement contractor who was working without permits and boasted a Better Business Bueau accreditation that they did not earn. A fake BBB accreditation shows a disturbing lack of confidence in how one works, since the accreditation itself doesn’t really guarantee that they have been evaluated or endorsed by the BBB. The lack of permits, however, is a charge that should garner genuine legal action and can be seen as real old-fashioned criminal behavior.

Lack of a proper permit may seem like a small thing but to be frank, its one of the most potentially expensive problems you can find yourself in. Not having the right permit can legally cause an inspector or neighbor to file a suit and cause you to pull down any work you’ve done and start again from scratch, causing thousands of dollars potentially. My own mother fell prey to this when she built her front porch. And, to be honest, getting an inspector to come by and tell you what you can do is not really what you would call a hassle. Most inspectors want to help customers understand their project better and far from the bureaucratic task masters that more seedy contractors make them out to be.

In a perfect world, every contractor would have this stuff down but as that customer in Buffalo would tell you, this is not the case. Ask your contractors and service providers about these things, make sure they have it covered before you start in on any project. Otherwise, you might find yourself in the middle of tearing down that new rec room the day after Christmas, as your kids enjoy their presents out of your sight. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

And Here We Go...

Our introductory video is up and it's a humdinger! Check out this video and the other two we made. More to come soon!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Trouble with Christmas Lists

It’s unanimous: I am an absolute pain to shop for. The latest ballot cast on this subject came from my darling girlfriend who opined that not only me, but also any NYC handyman or service provider is near impossible to shop for. I inquired as to how she came to this conclusion and her reason is something I find slight fault in: “You can fix things and you purposefully don’t own that much.”  

What’s my main complaint? This completely dismisses more experiential options, such as a dinner at a nice restaurant or a weekend romp up to Vermont, just for examples. But at the end of the day, my girlfriend has a point: at the end of the day, Id rather be home with her, in pajama pants, eating pizza and watching a recorded TCM movie than get dolled up to try yet another pretty good sushi place that got a good review in Time Out. I find it unlikely that you’d find a NYC handyman with an opinion that differs sharply from that.

Still, she’s big on forcing me into new experiences, which I’m grateful for, and just today, she suggested two things that I can’t say I’d be sad to receive: a day at a spa or quarterly maid service for one year. (She also suggested a gym membership, but I told her quite openly that I already have one gym membership that is barely used and am in no need for a second one.) I am, admittedly, leaning towards the maid service, seeing as I have never really had a “spa treatment” and am somewhat dubious as to whether I will enjoy it in the least. On the other hand, with the exception of my kitchen and bathroom, I am a bit of a compulsive organizer and cleaner, a trait I believe I get from my father.

Of course, this is omitting the obvious truth: I don’t really need much of anything at this point in my life and am happy with how everything is going right now. So, sure, sometime in January, I will return home and my stove top will no longer have those small specks of dried tomato soup will be gone and the tiles of my shower will look whiter than my bicuspids have ever been and, subsequently, I won’t feel like I’m bathing in germs. But at the end of the day, if my gift was a day off with a few good movies and some time on my Nintendo, I’d be genuinely content. And I suppose that does make me a pain to shop for.   

Monday, December 12, 2011

Educational Overload

 Just as I was getting excited about reports that construction work and jobs showing improvement so early into December, a huge gain upon even the optimistic November numbers, a good friend of mine in Washington, who once apprenticed under the same NYC electrician as me, forwarded me a small article. The article, published in the Washington Post, reports on a study that finds two-fifths of graduating high school students unprepared for both college and the workforce, or even work training. Research for the study was done at John Hopkins and the University of Arizona and the results, originally published last year while the study was still going on, are very interesting to say the least.

I am reminded of a scene from the first season of Treme, HBO’s luminous New-Orleans-set drama, in which an older man, a handyman by trade, boasts that he can build an entire home to a young hood who has attempted to rob him. It speaks to a truth that might have gotten glossed over in the age of self-confidence: Always know a trade. Indeed, to be totally clear, know something that no one can short-change. A NYC plumber has stores of knowledge that are practical and of constant use, and therefore will always be needed. I think of myself as a good writer but that can’t be proven, necessarily; it’s only believed to be true because enough people have reacted positively to the way I write.

 This isn’t to say that writing and other artistic endeavors are pointless. On the contrary, a temperament inclined towards artistry makes one humble, curious and forever more interesting in comparison to those who find such endeavors “pretentious” or, worse yet, “useless.” But as I told my young cousin only a few months ago, as she moved off to Portland to study poetry and work for an organic farmer, it’s important to know an everyday task back and forth, whether it be building a house or creating a detailed Excel spreadsheet. Of course, I’m inclined towards the former, seeing as remodeling and construction will never go out of style.

Indeed, the study concludes that a Bachelor’s Degree is often less crucial to a job hunt than an expertise in a STEM field, which often encourages higher-paying jobs even without a college education. It’s a hard issue to talk about, seeing as college was for me a rather revelatory experience, as I’m sure it is for most students. But, finally, there’s no rule saying you can’t go to college while also finding some level of expertise in a STEM field. It’s a compromise: an overwhelming amount of work for a small duration of your life, in exchange for a home to call your own where you have the option to either fix-up yourself or relax and pay some hard-working NYC handyman to fix for you. In essence, it gives you more options.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Green News

I’m writing a short post today but one of some measurable importance for those of you in the construction and remodeling game like myself. It was my girlfriend’s brother, an ex-NYC plumber who now works in the administration at a community college in Maryland, who pointed me towards an article late last week highlighting that President Obama and former President Bill Clinton are launching a four-billion dollar plan aiming at promoting Green building and retrofitting. The result is more jobs being created at no further expense to the taxpayer, as no new federal spending or tax breaks are required for the plan.

It comes at a crucial time, both economically speaking and in terms of seasons. As many of my local NYC handymen have been telling me, energy efficiency is something that becomes more important around the holidays, right around when the energy bill looks to spike. Green lighting is one thing but many people, thankfully, have been also replacing and repairing their doors and windows to cut down on drafts and subsequently lessen the need for increased heating costs. We’re still a few years away from compost heaters becoming a normal purchase and practice but news of Obama’s plan, coupled with the news from my colleagues, is certainly a positive step.

The plan’s main thrust is green improvements to larger buildings and, on average, Clinton was quoted as saying that every billion dollars spent on energy upgrades equates to approximately 7,000 jobs in America. June 2012 will see the first steps of this plan, wherein over a dozen organizations have planned to upgrade some 300 sq. ft. of building space with over $500 million coming from private financing. For NYC plumbers, electricians, handymen and other service providers, this is all gravy. Overdue gravy, but gravy all the same.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ryan's Artwork or: Dry Wall Delirium

The trip back home to Albany for Thanksgiving spurred a memory that is borderline cinematic to me. One of my first jobs, following a stint working at the local multiplex, was at Siena College, where I worked as a carpenter’s assistant and key room manager. Most days were spent in the key room, a little nothing of an office, with John, a former NYC handyman who had moved to Albany to essentially retire. He took the job, as he told me, out of boredom and seemed to enjoy the lazy pace of the place.

When I wasn’t with John, I was working with a crew to restore dormitories and classrooms across campus, jobs that, though relatively simple, often caused me injuries. One of my first jobs was involved soldering, and I don’t mind telling you that, while removing a wheel from an iron cart of sorts, a piece of hot metal fell and cut me around my ankle pretty badily. That was actual pain that John and my supervisor, Eric (another veteran NYC handyman, as it turned out), took very seriously but the dry wall story was more the thing of comedic legend in the Siena carpentry shop.

The job was simply to bring two-dozen large pieces of dry wall up to the fifth floor, from the fourth floor. There were three of us doing it, to save time, and about halfway through the job, we took an hour lunch break at the dining hall. The dry wall was to replace some damaged walls in a classroom upstairs, a suitable quick fix before the winter and fall started. It’s a regular job now that nearly any handyman can get done in a day, but this was larger scale seeing as a two-day torrential rainstorm that had hit us earlier that month had caused water damage in nearly half the classroom.

Boring stuff, actually, but when my two colleagues and me returned we found that the remaining half-dozen or so planks had become the canvas of some particularly expressive young artists. There were some minor curse words but more prominently, a slew of crayon drawing on at least half of the planks.  There were the normal culprits: a big sun, stick figures, a few animals, shapes surrounded by a mass of squiggly lines. More than anything, I was shocked by the amount of stuff that had been drawn in a relatively short amount of time.

The culprits were obvious a few rebellious kids from the campus summer camp and at the end of the day, who cares? But as I’ve been told, watching Tim, who eventually became a general contractor out of Nyack, and myself grunting and sweating while angling a large piece of dry wall with “Ryan Wuz Here!” and a big blue smiley face on it was enough to bring a few of the day laborers to their knees with laughter. I don’t doubt it, especially concerning the fact that I was a bit more liberal with the curse words back then. Regardless, the artist henceforth to be known as Ryan’s masterpiece is now covered up and makes up the left wall of the Level 3 math course classroom at Siena to this day.